- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (January 17, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 074324754X
- ISBN-13: 978-0743247542
“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
– The Glass Castle
Here’s the second book I managed to finish whilst sick as a proverbial dog over the weekend:
Jeannette Walls certainly doesn’t corner the market on unhappy childhoods. There are too many other similar memoirs out there for her own miserable tale to stand out for that reason alone. Where she does shine is in her style. I wouldn’t call it deadpan, but would refer to it as very matter of fact. She presents a shocking and deprived childhood in a way that doesn’t become too maudlin or in any way self-pitying. Yes, these terrible things did happen to her, but at the time Walls clearly didn’t realize there was anything wrong with the treatment she received at the hands of two of the most obtuse and eccentric parents on the planet. Maintaining her childhood innocence as she did, it took a while for it to really dawn on her that what was happening was terribly out of the ordinary.
Rex and Rose Mary Walls thought nothing of throwing their four children (including a very young infant) into the back of a U-Haul, to bounce around with what little furniture they owned, while fleeing yet another town in the middle of the night. When the doors of the truck blew open, in transit, it was the children who were blamed. The upside was after another motorist forced them to pull over and stop, the children were at least able to empty their bladders before getting back into the truck for another several hours’ drive. After spending several hours trying to get their parents’ attention in order to ask for a break, the alert motorist must have seemed a godsend for that reason alone.
Rex Walls regularly performed this sort of “skeedaddle” due to his own inability to hold down a job and stay out of debt. When he did get money he spent it on booze and prostitutes, leaving his children to starve without so much as a second thought. His children soon learned they’d have to scratch and claw for food. Pawing through garbage came to be a way of life, though it wasn’t without its sense of shame. They weren’t so shielded as not to realize this much.
At the age of three Jeannette was expected to cook her own food, as her parents were either too drunk or too much otherwise occupied to do it for her. As a result, she caught herself on fire while boiling hot dogs and had to be hospitalized. After six weeks in the hospital, and before she’d fully healed, Rex Walls performed another sort of “skeedaddle” taking her out of the hospital himself, removing her I.V. in order to bolt with her down the hall.
Another time Jeannette fell out of the family car, while on yet another move, and it took hours for her parents to realize she was missing and come back to look for her. Her father merely picked the gravel out of her face and washed her off as best he could, with no thought of having her attended to by doctors. At a later point, when Rex Walls had badly injured himself, ripping open his arm, Jeannette was enlisted to sew it up for him. Doctors were luxuries the family could ill afford and apparently didn’t believe in, anyway.
Walls tells story after story in this same matter of fact manner. Our horror, as readers, is still there but we’re able to transcend this in order to get through episode after episode of starvation, deprivation and neglect without it becoming too much a litany of horrific things. In the end we see Jeannette Walls as a survivor, though how she got through all of this alive is really a wonder. Grim as it sounds this is actually an uplifting memoir. Hopefully it’s not too much a plot spoiler to say things do turn out well in the end, and thank goodness for that.