The American Dream and Angela’s Ashes combined. Now a major motion picture (I haven’t seen it). Short chapters on life in rust-bucket America and California and what it means to be poor and smelly. Treated as an outcast. Yet throughout the reader knows Jeannette will rise.
‘One day I was walking down Broadway with another student named Carol when I gave some change to a young homeless guy. ‘You shouldn’t that,’ Carol said.
‘It only encourages them. They’re all scam artists.’
What do you know? I wanted to ask, I felt like telling Carol that my parents were out there, too, that she had no idea what it was like to be down on your luck with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. But that would have meant explaining who I really was…
I know I should have stuck up for Mum and Dad. I’d been pretty scrappy as a kid and our family had always fought for one another.’
Professor Fuchs was one of her favourite teachers at college. She taught political science. (If politics was a science it could explain the rise of the moron’s moron and what the cure was for a Trump Presidency, her mum accused Jeannette of become a Republican, but that’s an aside).
Fuchs asked a question in class that had particular resonance with Jeannette. Her dad was a genius that could fix anything and do anything. The Glass Castle in the title referred to his believe that was the house he designed they would live in when he came into some money. In the meantime he couldn’t keep a job, drank all the money they had and borrowed more. Her mum had visions of being an artist. She worked hard following her dream, and ignored little things like her children having nothing to eat and little to wear. The bigger picture was always beyond her.
‘I was on fire.’
First lines are so important. It asks questions, who are you? What are you? The family live in a trailer park in Arizona. Jeannette is cooking hot dogs, prodding them with a fork. She’s three-years old and has pushed a chair up against the stove. Her mum taught them not to whine and complain. She’s getting on with it. Juju, their black mutt, watches her, hoping for a share. Her dress is pink and she loves the way it makes her feel. Made of nylon, it sticks out like a tutu. As her dress went on fire, she didn’t know what to do. She’d never been on fire before and felt the heat climbing up her body.
Mom and Dad and Lori her older sister, Brian her young brother and baby of the family, Maureen, live in the ‘Desert’ then they don’t.
Dad came home in the middle of the night a few months later and roused them. They’d fifteen minutes to pick up what they needed. They were on the move again. An odyssey like that of the Joad’s. They pass through Oklahoma in their broken-down car. Mom laughs, they must have come down in the world, even the Okies are laughing at them.
Battle Mountain. Welch was where they dug coal out of the ground and where John F.Kennedy did a tour to show the foodstamps wasn’t a socialist plot. Mom and Dad prided themselves on never taking Welfare. Instead, they starved. They were the skinniest kids at school. Dad’s mum had paedophilic tendencies and tried to feel up Brian. And their Uncle tried to feel Jeannette up. It was just one of those things. Everybody fought with each other in Welch, but the Walls family repelled all on comers including Child Protection. They were fine. Just fine. And when Dad was sober, they were mostly fine, but in Welch he was never sober. It was a hard-drinking town. Jeannette’s dream was to leave for somewhere else, something else, and that place was New York. From Battle Mountain to Barnard. She’d made it. They’d made it out.
Professor Fuchs could not see that child that Jeannette shows the reader in this novel. Fuch’s asked if homelessness and drug abuse was the result of a misguided entitlement programme.
Or was it cuts to such programmes and lack of economic opportunity?
Jeannette’s answer: ‘That sometimes people get the life they want’.
Fuchs had read about poverty. Jeannette lived it. Here it is in black and white (or in colour if you watch the picture).