The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Dickensian world of poverty is so abominably tenebrous that we tend to think of it simply as an anachronistic, if not antediluvian, work of fiction apropos of a bygone Victorian era, without translating its elemental essence of nobleness of human spirit that arises from predicaments into our own zeitgeist. The fictitious characters of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip are the embodiment of such resilience, phoenix-like spirits enduring sordid conditions that life could impose upon us to the extent possible. Spinoza, the Dutch thinker and watchmaker, once said that it is Amor fati, love of fate, by which man’s inner strength could raise him above his outward fate. In fact, Nietzsche centuries after corroborated by saying: “That which does not kill me only makes me stronger.” Given the above axioms, what if someone in our contemporary time a fortiori lives to tell such victory of human spirit? That was the reason that I chose The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. All of the aforesaid noble triumph of human spirit over existential horrors of life is substantively and stoically recorded in this compelling living memoir with all her spirit, with all her intelligence, and with all her heart.
The story starts as Walls invites us to board her memory train and travel back in times until we return to where we depart along the long and winding railroads of her windy but beloved past. We meet her charismatic, intelligent father whose engineering feats are passed in smolder by his ever independent, anti-establishment, recalcitrant spirit a fortiori emboldened by a spirit of Dionysian portion. The artistically inclined mother is all liberality: She is a devout Catholic – although far from being sanctimonious – and has a heart of gold, save a practical sense of the world. Then there are one brother and two sisters, all of whom are highly intelligent and well-behaved thanks to the moral upbringing by their parents. The parents do not have the gumption to support their children, let alone themselves in terms of economic security, which was the cause of the existential ills of the family, pushing Walls into a position of a de facto breadwinner of the family.
What is most profoundly august about Walls through living amid the straits of constant economic insecurity, frequent threats of family separation by social agencies, and dangers of physical harassments was her strong sense of responsibility for her life and for her family that enabled her to endure the existential predicaments. Many people mired in such situations might have develop disputatious streaks of rebellion against everything ascribed to them. However, Walls and her siblings took different attitudinal values to their existential dilemmas: they held on to a sense of purpose and a tenacious grasp on togetherness nurtured by their yearning to achieve a higher aim in life. In fact, such attitude toward life corresponds to one of the tenets of Logotheraphy: in order to find a meaning of life however trivial or nihilistic it many seem, taking a different, constructive stance on what is ascribed helps us to rise above biological, social, and cultural inhibitions during a difficult times because we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to. Which also brings us back to Spinoza’s Amor fati axiom: a different approach to our suffering is sublimated into supremeaning of life in travails by believing in its meaning to every situation with will to live a meaningful life, which then ceases to be a suffering itself.
The literary merit of this memoir lies in its absence of unbridled namby-pamby outpourings of emotions in the narrative with a certain air of stoicism. Ironically, Walls’s frank, touchy-willy, matter-of-fact manner of discoursing her story belies her overwhelmingly heartrending heartaches, disappointments, and dismay smothered under factual descriptions of her past that renders the authority of truth and the power of reality without hindrance of prohibitive emotions that often results in fabrication. In her literary confession, Wall achieves catharsis by putting what was in her mind on pages after pages, pushing her pen through in expense of her will to come to terms with her parents, let alone herself, producing forgiveness of her parents’ wrongdoings and acceptance of their frailties in a package of love and tenderness.
All in all, Walls’ s message to her reader is clear: you can’t choose your fate, such as a family, but you can choose what to make out of what you are given. In one way or another, the story itself chimes the bells of emotions and thoughts of many of us: the problems and issues that the Walls had and the ones we have or had are not oranges and apples through our voyages of life. Walls shows us that notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of life, self-reliance, resilience, and determination helps us to sail through with cheerfulness and humor as handmaids to courage. This honest-to-goodness tale of a woman rising above the planes of her inhibitions speaks straightly to our hearts. This book is a one-of-kind testament to its veracity and quality that upon reading this book, you will feel as if you knew Walls telling a story with a sense of elemental kinship which you can relate to. Moreover, this bona fide memori gives us a sense of relief that no family is perfectly blissful, which resonates with Tolstoy’s view of families as inscribed on the first page of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”