The first surprising thing, for me, about Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle was the epigram: "Dark is a way and light is a place." It's from Dylan Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday," and I have the very same line tattooed on my left arm. When people ask what it means, I tell them it means, "everything is going to be okay." But it can't mean us much for me as it does for someone like Walls, whose story of her tumultuous childhood with her shiftless, selfish, and frequently homeless parents, has a lot of dark ways and very few light places. (Makes you wonder if she considered, and rejected as too mean, Philip Larkin's line about parents: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad.")
Her father Rex is an autodidact, a self-proclaimed genius who loves to live off the grid. They flit from one small town in the Southwest to another, where her father takes odd jobs as an electrician so that he can support his more important efforts, like building a machine called "The Prospector" to help them pan for gold. The titular "Glass Castle" is a home with transparent windows and walls that Rex promises Jeanette they'll build one day. A lot of dads make hollow promises, but how many carry actual blueprints in their pockets? His real intelligence blurs with selfish bragging; much of the time he claims to be investigating the nefarious unions that keep him out of work, he's actually at the bar, nursing his alcoholism.
Rex Walls is so similar to some of the other "bad dads" in the books I've read the last couple of years--Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children and Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast. Like those two, he may actually be a genius, but his brains are dwarfed by his vast selfishness which puts his family repeatedly at risk. But, unlike those two, he has the special and curious quality of having actually existed.
Walls' mother Mary is an artist and sometimes teacher who makes it clear to her children that they are a burden, part of a life that she never really chose for herself. When the Wallses move back to Rex's home of Welch, West Virginia, she refuses to find work, even though teachers are in short supply and her family is nearly starving. That's not an exaggeration--at times, Jeanette and her siblings surreptitiously pull food out of the trashcans at school just to make it through the day. Jeanette and her sister Lori start a fund to help them move to New York and escape the turbulence of their life, only to have their father break their piggy bank and steal the money for booze.
Later on, when Jeanette finally does make it to New York, her parents follow her there and become effectively homeless. They sleep in parks, or in shelters, and end up squatting in an abandoned apartment on the Lower East Side. Jeanette tells her mother that she's worried about her, but her mother counters, "I'm worried about you"--as if the bourgeois values that Jeanette aspires to are a violation of the spirit of adventure with which she had been raised. There is a faint suggestion that things were not all bad--we get a sweet story of her father "claiming" the stars for her in lieu of a birthday present, and another where they traipse around the desert fighting an imaginary demon. The trailer for the upcoming film suggests to me that the rascally-but-free-spirited qualities of Jeanette's parents will be played up, in contrast to Brie Larson's dour boogie face. But it seems to me that whatever value is in the Wallses' free spirited nature fails to balance letting their children go unschooled and hungry. As difficult as her life was, Jeanette is no more able to detach herself from her parents, or condemn them, than any daughter might. I suspect other readers like me don't have any of those compunctions.
Not that she absolves them completely. There's an interesting parallel between this and another non-fiction book making the rounds this year, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, partly because Walls' story ends up in the Appalachia that is the setting of Vance's book as well. But just as Vance, having grown up among broken families in Ohio, is reluctant to lay the blame on structural problems rather than personal failures, Walls confronts a professor at Columbia who claims that the poor don't really want to be poor:
"I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want."
"Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?" Professor Fuchs asked. "Are you saying they don't want warm beds and roofs over their heads?"
"Not exactly," I said. I was fumbling for words. "They do. But some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet."
Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?" she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. "What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?"
The other students were staring at me.
"You have a point," I said.
The professor's not wrong. But there's a lesson here about judging books by their cover, and a deeper lesson that warns us about some of the condescending and infantilizing language of our most cherished liberal platitudes. But mostly it's a condemnation of Walls' parents, whom she loves despite the chaos and ruin they inflicted on her. That takes quite a bit of strength of character, I think.