How we define poverty and attribute its causes will largely be determined by our political tendencies. Those with right-wing affiliations tend to see poverty as a result of personal choice: people in poverty choose to have drug dependencies or enter into destructive relationships or, though a series of bad personal choices, end up in low paying jobs. People on the left pin it on structural causes where society in general, and capitalism in particular, have failed its citizens. The Glass Castle is a powerful exposition of this debate, and through excellent storytelling we’re compelled to reflect on the relationship between poverty and choice, as well as the bonds that hold families together.
The novel begins with Jeanette sitting in a taxi on her way to a party in New York when she sees her mother rooting around a dumpster: ‘Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud’. This scene frames the novel and lets Walls lead us through her childhood. We are eventually brought full circle to where as an adult, wearing pearls and living in an apartment on Park Avenue, it is entirely conceivable that Jeanette can witnesses her own mother’s destitution.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between Jeanette and her dad, Rex, a charismatic, highly intelligent alcoholic. Rex is full of big ideas, fanciful notions of his prowess, and plans for inventions. His dream is to build a Glass Castle in the desert, with glass walls, ceiling and stairs and he carries around its blue prints where-ever he goes. He promises his family it’ll be built as soon as he invents a machine which can find gold and they strike it rich. A metaphor for his family’s well-being, as the promise of the Glass Castle slips away, his family slides deeper into poverty and malfunction.
The story is superbly crafted so that at the beginning, like three-year old Jeanette, we naively accept the chaos and the daily perils of living in the Walls family. But as Jeanette’s awareness and sensibilities grow, she allows us to better witness Rex and Rose Mary’s irresponsibility and selfishness, and the damaging effect it has on their four children.
Towards the beginning of the book there is a beautiful scene in which, because Rex and Rose Mary don’t allow their kids to believe in Santa Claus and there is no money for presents, Rex takes each of his children out to look at the desert sky and says that instead of a present, they can each choose a star ‘for keeps’. Rex gives Jeanette the planet Venus:
We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch a cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broke and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars”.
But as the book progresses these poignant scenes become fewer until the story is about the tactics the children adopt to survive their poverty. With no money for food, when classmates stopped believing that she had just forgotten her school lunch, Jeanette starts hiding in the bathroom during lunch hour with her feet propped up so no one would recognise her shoes. Afterwards she would go through the garbage bins for leftovers. She joins the school newspaper to avoid the literally freezing temperatures of their home. Meanwhile, the roof in their bedroom leaks so badly that her brother Brian covers himself with a life-raft at night to keep dry.
If this book wasn’t a presented as a memoir it would be unbelievable. Rose Mary’s self-absorption, myopic focus on her artwork and her detachment from reality is heart-stopping. At the same time, we see Rex gradually swallowed up by alcohol and his own demons. As a result, it is the children who take on the adult responsibilities for sustaining each other emotionally and physically.
At the end of the book, Jeanette makes the point that had her parents been prepared to make some comprises, while they might not have had ideal lives, they could have made ends meet. It’s a powerful conclusion because it comes from someone who has struggled with poverty, and come out the other side. Although it’s at times uncomfortable reading, The Glass Castle makes an essential contribution to the dialogue around poverty, and still delivers a story that is engaging and entertaining while it does.