2012 Jan.13 - Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

After some hilarious seasonal readings at Anne's in December, we switched back into serious discussion mode, and once again 14 members (plus one visitor) turned out for the meeting on the first Friday the 13th of 2012. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, is about the author's nomadic childhood with an eccentric, frustrated-artist mother and an alcoholic father who cannot hold a job. Half Broke Horses, by the same author, was written after The Glass Castle, but is a prequel. It is the story of the author's maternal grandmother, Lily Casey. Denise started the meeting by asking how many had read the book(s). Almost all had read The Glass Castle, and about half had also read Half Broke Horses. Denise told us that the author's first husband (whose father was a well-known New York attorney) told her not to tell anyone about her impoverished and dysfunctional family, but her second husband encouraged her to tell her story. Walls had escaped from her family at the age of 17 and fled to New York City, where she attended Barnard College on scholarships, and eventually became a high-profile celebrity journalist with MSNBC.com. That's what she was doing at the time The Glass Castle was published in 2005. She had previously been ashamed to say anything about her dysfunctional family, worrying that "snobby" people (or so she thought them) would turn against her, but she was astonished by the compassion and the amount of pain that other people were obviously carrying around. The success of the first book gave her the courage to say more, and to risk the financial security she had struggled all her life to find. In 2006 she quit her job to write books full-time, moving to rural Virginia with her second husband, who is also a writer. According to an interview, the author is very conservative with money. She suffers from the scars of her past, and needs security, which she says is the reason she stayed with her first husband for five years. She didn't love him, but he was "stable" - the "opposite" of her father. She says she still hordes food. She says she could not have written her story until after her father's death, and she still feels compelled to care for her mother, Rose Mary, who now lives with Walls and her husband (following a period of homelessness on the streets of New York).

Walls says that the problem with her father Rex was not that he was such a shiftless drunk, but that he had so much good in him as he did, given where he came from. He was drinking heavily by the time he was 15 and got no real love or support from home. The only person who really gave him any faith in himself while he was growing up was an English teacher, after whom Jeannette is named. She feels that her mother Rose Mary was rather upper middle-class, but suffered from too much discipline in her youth and spent the rest of her life searching for freedom and adventure. She was passive, and just let what happened to her kids happen, so was not very interesting to write about. Walls said that readers wanted to know more about her mother, but Rose Mary said she should really write about HER mother, Jeannette's grandmother, Lily Casey. Walls says she is a story-teller, not a fiction writer, so she needed someone to tell her the "true life" stories so she could write them. Rose Mary shared her stories and memories with Jeannette, whose best memory of growing up is the time when her father gave her a star (which was, in fact, a planet) as a Christmas present. Walls says she found it easy to write from her grandmother's voice. With regard to her siblings, her brother Brian was very supportive, and after the book was published she was able to get back together with her younger sister Maureen. Her older sister Lori did not want her to write the book, and did not want to read it, but agreed to read it when their mother urged her to.

To start the discussion, Denise asked what similarities we noticed between the characters in the two books. She suggested a similarity between Helen (Lily Casey's sister) and Maureen (Jeannette's sister), but we felt that we don't know much about those characters. We, like Rose Mary and Lily herself, agreed that Jeannette is like her grandmother Lily. Both Lily and Jeannette are/were action-driven "hands-on" women. On the other hand (pun intended), Rose Mary, Daisy Mae (Lily's mother), and Helen didn't get their hands dirty. Denise feels that Jeannette's father Rex is like Lily's father (Adam Casey). (ed.-Are you confused enough yet, with all these names?) Claudia thought Walls had based her grandfather's character on her father, but found that The Glass Castle did not ring true when she read Half Broke Horses. Wendy asked if Jeannette Walls has children, and Denise replied that she hasn't seen anything about children in any notes or interviews. Anne added that with a past like that, who would want to have children? Leslie said that the Scandinavian proverb quoted at the beginning of her book, "It was the great north wind that made the Vikings," shows the strength of Lily and Jeannette. Wendy felt that the Walls family's move to West Virginia was important in catapulting Jeannette into someplace else, since it was a horrible place and it was obvious that Jeannette wouldn't stay. Wendy said she lived in that area. Denise said she liked the descriptions of places in Half Broke Horses, and handed around maps of Lily's ride to her first teaching job 500 miles away from her home. We mentioned the fact that the Walls family had "pets," although they seldom had enough food for themselves. Rosie quoted from Rose Mary's opinion about the pets getting the leftovers, if there were any. "'If they don't like it, they can leave,' said Mom... Mom told us that we were actually doing the animals a favor by not allowing them to become dependent on us... Mom liked to encourage self-sufficiency in all living creatures." As to tossing cats out the car window or putting excess kittens in a burlap sack and drowning them in the pond, Rose Mary said, "We gave them a little extra time on this planet. They should be grateful for that." Denise reminded us that Rose Mary said Jeannette needed someone to anchor her, but that Rex replied that you can't fly with an anchor. Denise also mentioned the "unspoken rule" that one should pretend that life is a long and fun adventure. According to Rose Mary, sleeping in cartons (if there's no money for beds) is an adventure. Having no pillows, like the Indians, helps to develop good posture. Cold weather is good for you because it kills the germs. One of the bonuses of living with migrant workers at the one-storey cinder-block LBJ Apartments building on the outskirts of Blythe, in the desert, "smack dab in the middle of nowhere," was that the family could pick up Spanish without studying. Karen said she could forgive Rex, but not Rose Mary. Maggie said just the opposite, that she could forgive Rose Mary, but not Rex. After all, part of Rose Mary's philosophy was that "you should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. 'Everyone has something good about them,' she said. 'You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.'" When Jeannette then asked her mother what Hitler's redeeming quality was, she replied, "without hesitation," "Hitler loved dogs." Denise remarked that Rose Mary didn't want Rex to be sober. Rex had stopped drinking as a birthday gift for Jeannette, but then Rose Mary got the family to move to West Virginia, to Rex's home town, where it was obvious that he would start drinking again. Claudia suggested that perhaps we are more forgiving of Rex because Walls painted a nicer, warmer picture of him than of Rose Mary. Denise noted Rose Mary's lack of connection to reality. She let a 3-year-old cook (and catch fire at the stove), and claimed she was pregnant for 14 months. She was "too busy" (doing what? we ask) to cook, so let the kids scrounge in the Dumpster for food. She appeared unconcerned about sexual assault when Rex's mother groped Brian. She dabbled in painting, and, in Denise's opinion, could have been an artist, if only she had something to say. Leslie said Rose Mary just wanted to create, perhaps as a reaction against her life. Rose Mary alternately packed her art materials and paintings in or on top of the car (while leaving the children's clothes and treasures behind), or left them behind as well when the family moved on. We wondered if she would have wanted to sell any of her paintings. We mentioned the diamond ring which Jeannette and Brian found while foraging in the woods behind the house in West Virginia, but which Rose Mary decided to keep to help raise her spirits, even though there was not enough cash to feed the family, and "all that property" she inherited in Texas, worth more than a million dollars, but basically kept secret. Maggie said that she was probably afraid to mention the land because she might lose it, and Karen added that Rex could have drunk his way through the money in no time. Denise said Rose Mary had a visceral attachment to the land. Glynis, our visitor, said Rose Mary could have left Rex. Wendy reminded us that Jeannette begged her mother to leave her father when they were in West Virginia and to get Social Services aid. Glynis said that Rose Mary chose Rex, but Maggie disagreed, saying that it was Rex who flatly announced that Rose Mary was the woman he was going to marry. Glynis countered that Rose Mary had the right of veto, but everyone else seemed to agree that Rex was the adventure that Rose Mary had been looking for, and that is why she wouldn't leave him. Anne was surprised that their children were so compliant. She was relieved when they all escaped to New York City, but horrified when the parents followed them there. PeggyR noted that kids removed from their families by Social Services often want to be returned to them. Rosie wondered how they had slipped through the nets (until Welch, West Virginia) and lamented, "If only Rex could have stopped drinking. What a waste of so much intellect." We noted that the kids were in school at some point (e.g. Blythe, California), but they were mostly home-schooled and Jeannette could read by the time she was 5 years old. Rose Mary was trained as a teacher, but rebelled against the fact that her mother forced her to get a teaching degree. Wendy said that the characters are the antithesis of the puritan work ethic, and mentioned "the Greatest Generation," which several members had never heard of, and the results of "having too much." PeggyR felt that some of the quotes on the face page, such as "incredible testimony of childhood neglect," don't really apply to the book as she saw it. Was there really neglect? KatharineC said it was more like bad parenting. Anne suggested loving and smothering. One member said that the worst part for her was when Rex sent Jeannette from the bar with a man he "knew" she'd know how to handle, in order to make some money, and that she herself couldn't handle that part of the story. Denise said they all seemed impervious to sexual abuse, and that it's a matter of perception. If you don't feel you have been abused, then you haven't been. Rosie said they all thought they were "normal" and a happy family. Claudia said that Rex felt that he was giving them a lot, and PeggyR said that he was, in a way.

One of our members said she loves this club because she would never have read these books if they had not been on our list, and she loved them. She thinks it's wonderful that Jeannette Walls can write as she does, and wishes she could do the same. Rosie said that there are probably some great stories around our table but wondered how much we can remember. PeggyR thinks that the older you get, the easier it is to remember, and Maggie and Claudia both felt that perhaps the most difficult memories are the most vivid, and easier to remember. Denise noted that both The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses start with a disaster scene, one with a child on fire in the kitchen, and the other with a flash flood, and the kids racing to climb a tree to survive. Leslie said that siblings can relate to a story about family, but outsiders don't necessarily understand. KatharineJ disagreed, saying she has siblings, but they all have different opinions of their childhood. KatharineJ also said she could forgive a bit of physical neglect on the part of the mother, but not neglect of the children's mental states. Karen felt that Rose Mary had remained a child herself. PeggyR said she was disappointed that she did not find in Half Broke Horses the background to explain why Rose Mary was the way she was. She asked the question, "What should parents give to their children?" One possible answer is to avoid being a too-strong mother.

In closing, Terri asked Denise why she had chosen and recommended The Glass Castle. Denise said it is psychological. She read it first in French, and found the West Virginia part very depressing. Leslie said her father wrote a book about child-raising, and she would like to do the same. Maggie promised to send everyone some information about a writers' workshop. As you can see, it was a very meaty discussion, and we didn't even really talk about the second book, Half Broke Horses.

Jeannette Walls considers "a hot bath to be one of the world's greatest luxuries. People who've never lived without running water cannot understand how miraculous it is to simply turn on a couple of faucets and be able to step into a tub of warm water. That, and a flush toilet." We chose that as a quote for our Water Awareness Month in March, and will be looking for water-related quotes in other books we discuss.

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Denise followed up the day after our meeting by sending us 15 pages of her notes, maps, and texts of a couple of interviews that she found on the web, as well as the links to some video interviews with Jeannette Walls, including the one with her mother who shows her paintings. (She said it would be interesting for people to then circulate their impressions of Rose Mary.) She said that although we didn't mention it during the meeting, she wonders how many caught on that the title Half Broke Horses refers to Rose Mary and Rex? Rose Mary was the only "horse" that Lily was never able to break.
The name of the French book that Denise mentioned at the end of the meeting is Le Chagrin, by Lionel Duroy (journalist at Liberation, L'Evenement du jeudi.


15 April 2012.