Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Glass Castle - by Jeannette Walls

Although I lived for a time in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and witnessed neighborhoods where the residents lived in corrugated steel houses without running water or electricity, I could never have imagined the true depth of the poverty. Walls' memoir tells the story of a family constantly on the move, often going hungry for days, her alcoholic father and negligent mother always a step ahead of the creditors. The family often slept outside, or in their car. When they had homes there was never money for repairs so collapsing floors, porches and ceilings were a normal part of life for the author and her three siblings. Although they sometimes went to school, and sometimes didn't, the Walls children were all taught to read by their mother, and learned the value of the public library. They found and used the library whenever they moved and despite the family's dysfunction, they all enjoyed reading together and "read whatever Mom brought home from her weekly trips to the library."

After the family moved from the southwest to West Virginia Walls used the public library to research options on how the family might improve its situation. And, she also discovers the sad truth that librarians aren't always able to answer questions. When she realized that her family would never be able to afford braces for her, she asked for a book on orthodontia. "The librarian looked at me funny and said she didn't have one, so I realized I'd have to figure it out as I went along." After experimenting she came up with a device to wear at night made from a coat hanger, rubber bands and a "Kotex sanitary napkin for padding".

As they got older the Walls children planned an escape to New York, where after a few false starts they all eventually ended up. Ultimately their parents joined them, although they remained homeless, even as the children got jobs and found their own shelter. The elder Walls' discovered "the public libraries with the good bathrooms where you could wash thoroughly - 'We wash as far down as possible and as far up as possible, but we don't wash possible,' was how Mom put it..." as well they made use of the libraries that were open late when the weather got cold. However, they also used the library to find reading material, and when Walls enrolled in Barnard University her father followed her assigned readings by borrowing the books from the library and "read every single he could answer any questions [his daughter] might was his way of getting a college education." When she got a job writing a column about "movers and shakers" for a magazine her father not only became a faithful reader, he researched "the skinny dames and fat cats" she wrote about at the library and gave her tips.

Even amid severe turmoil, a good library will provide stability.

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