The purpose of book clubs is to introduce us to books we would otherwise not even have looked at. Such was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, the first book I would be reading for my book club. Just reading the back cover, I thought in dismay what nuisance this book would be. Another autobiography to bring us all to tears, I reflected (yes, I am that cynical). I was totally wrong. This is indeed a heartfelt, true story, of a thoroughly eccentric family in Appalachian America and how each of the members managed (or not) to overcome situations that most can only see in films.
The descriptions in the book really shocked me, all the more because I still have an idealised version of how a family should function, where parents respect each other and provide and care for the children - nothing like two parents who, though they may love their children, are so self-absorbed that they play with the idea of pushing the author towards prostitution, they don't notice when she falls out of a moving car, just as they don't see a problem with the family living in extreme poverty (even though, towards the end of the book, we learn of an amazing fortune left unexploited). Still, the tone in the book is not about self-pity - surprisingly, the author describes all incidents in a neutral, balanced manner that lets the story tell itself. There is a lot of neglect but, most accurately put forward by the author, there is also a lot of complexity in the relationships within a family.
While reading this book, I felt at times like a witness in a car accident - it's horrible, there's broken glass and blood everywhere and people have been injured, but I just can't help myself standing there watching. I wanted to see (read) more ugliness. The bad incidents are plenty in the life of the author, but of course, she and her siblings regard many of them as the usual way of things. And here I questioned myself: how do we judge a situation? what makes an incident horrible to a child, when the child itself does not regard this as such? Everything in life is so subjective, I truly believe the author went by her childhood without feeling sorry for herself for the ugliness she went through - on the contrary, she became an adult early on and learned very important survival skills that eventually helped her get away from home and thrive.
So while three of the four children manage in the end to lead a "conventional" life, the parents sink even further, willingly continuing to rummage dumpsters and living an "unconventional" life. This was the part that was most difficult to comprehend and accept. My comfortable, unadventurous, traditionally-educated self made me want to shout at these characters (actually, I think I did at some point) with frustration : What is wrong with you people? How can you NOT want to escape this diresome existence?
The Glass Castle is not a light story to read, but I'm glad the author decided to share it with us, if only to marvel at the strength of courage and determination in all of us, as well as the resilience against difficult situations.