This is the third installment in my quest, which is to read a book by an author from each state! This selection is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wells. Jeannette Wells was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1960. The daughter of Rex and Rose Mary, she lived a nomadic life, with a family that was constantly doing the “skeedadle” when bills were due. She left home at age 17, moving to New York City and eventually graduated from Barnard with honors. She was the gossip columnist for MSNBC and left in 2007 to pursue writing full time.
The Glass Castle is her memoir of growing up, beginning at age three. Actually, in the opening of the book she sees her mother digging through a garbage dumpster in lower Manhatten as she retreats to her Park Avenue home.
The 2nd chapter opens with the line “I was on fire”. That will get your attention. At three years old her favorite pink dress caught fire as she tried to make herself a hot dog. When they asked her at the hospital why she was cooking, she said “Mom says I’m mature for my age and she lets me cook.”. Her mother often consumed by finishing her latest painting, she often couldn’t be bothered to cook, why spend the time on something that will be consumed in 15 minutes when she can spend time on a painting that will last forever?
This is the story of her family – much of is pure horror. But it is told with love and affection for her nomadic parents. Her father is an alcoholic that often can’t hold a job. He doesn’t trust the government with his money, and is always talking about the “glass castle” they will build when he makes his fortune. Her mother often hoards candy bars when they children have no food.
The family settles for a time in a mining town in Nevada and she spends much of her time exploring the desert with her brother Brian, while her sister Lori reads. Mom even takes a break from painting and teaches for a bit. But, when there is an altercation with the law, the family is forced to “skedaddle” again.
Mom has inherited a house from her mother and they move to Phoenix, and they have some stability for awhile. Dad works, but the alcoholism always comes back. In a touching scene, Jeannette asks her dad to give up drinking for her 10th birthday, which he valiantly tries to do. But, when the car breaks down, and mom decides she needs more adventure, they move to dad’s childhood home in West Virginia.
West Virginia is terribly depressing. Rex’s mom is abusive and she tries to sexually abuse brother Brian. The town itself is depressing, segregated and impoverished. They buy a shack on a hill – no indoor plumbing or central heating. Dad’s drinking gets worse and the children are often hungry. She and sister Lori plan an to escape to New York, and the girls manage to do it! Brian joins them later (at this point there is a younger sister Maureen).
Not to give too much away, the parents get a little lonely and follow the children to New York – but they are unwilling to work and instead live as squatters. Maureen doesn’t adjust well and ends up in a mental institution.
Somehow the story is told with genuine love for her parents, and also a sense of adventure in growing up. This is a well written memoir, a tale of survival that includes near starvation, abuse and poverty, but also of love. Jeannette current lives in Virginia with her husband, with her mother close by (her father died in 1994).
Some local sayings about Arizona:
Arizona looks like a battle on Mars.
Welcome to Arizona, where summer spends the winter – and hell spends the summer.
You know you are from Arizona when you feed your chickens ice cubes to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs.
Copper is the most abundant mineral
The bola tie is the official state neckwear
Petrified wood is the official state fossil
Turquoise is the official state gemstone
The saguaro cactus blossom is the official state flower
The saguaro is the largest American cactus
Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon
Arizona observes Mountain Standard time year round – except in the Navajo Nation
Frank Lloyd Wrights studio Tallesin West was built near Phoenix
Arizona has the most land set aside and designated as Indian lands
Next – I will be reading from Arkansas!