Is this a childhood I would have loved or hated?

Posted by Guy Pringle, 2nd December 2011

I’ve begun my reading for the next Readers Gathering in May 2012 and been lucky enough to choose an easy one to start. I don’t think any of our choices are going to be heavy chores but when you set out on something like this it’s nice to feel positive from day one.


Anyway, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls is a memoir of her American mid-West childhood, growing up in the 60s. The family come across as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row characters mixed with the Beverley Hillbillies (without the money!) and a dash of hippie idealism. The words feckless, lazy and itinerant spring to mind for both her town drunk of a father and her artist mother as they move from town to town - often moonlight flits - looking for a better life but managing to miss it at every opportunity.


Jeanette tells her story in a very readable, highly believable and laugh out loud style – even when inside you’re cringing at the indignities they went through. Thankfully, she comes out of all this better than might be expected – according to Wikipedia not only has she made a career in journalism and as a novelist but she looks stunning in that all-American, mouth-full-of-teeth kind of way.


Is it a childhood I would have wanted? Looking back on my own, it was carefree in a way children these days don’t seem to be allowed. Of course, rose-coloured spectacles probably distort my memory but Jeanette’s childhood was genuinely deprived – going hungry for days, wearing thrift store threads in the depths of winter, leaving possessions behind in order to escape trouble at short notice. Parents Rex and Rose Mary have a telling way with their life-philosophy that allows them to do nothing in the face of adversity. They can excuse shoplifting or fraud as entirely acceptable because the haves won’t miss it while they, as the have nots, need it. And although as role models you’d go a long way to find worse there is a kind of love and devotion from their children.


I have a fascination with this part of America and looked up Little Hobart Street, Welch on google maps, fully expecting it not to be there but there it was! So my sneaking suspicion that this memoir might be more fiction than truth suddenly foundered. Which makes me realize that, however much freedom Jeanette and her siblings had, this definitely isn’t something I would have wished to exchange.


However, as a book to discuss next May this will have loads of issues for discussion. Gilly nominated The Glass Castle giving this as her take on it:

‘This is a true story of a family growing up in the 60s in America.  Neither parent have any parenting skills at all and quite often the children go hungry as the father has lost his job and has drunk any money and the mother is too busy painting or reading. This book left me opened mouthed and with a sore throat where I had been shouting at the parents.  One side of you thinks that this cannot be a true story as it is too bizarre and that it couldn’t possibly be allowed to happen but then this is America in the 60s and child neglect in south west desert towns is not high on the agenda of social services.’


As one of our postcards says, ‘I’m really glad you chose that – I’d never have read it otherwise.’

Highly recommended.

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