Bad memories, good stories

Raised by a bipolar, alcoholic father and a (probably) bipolar hoarder mother, Jeannette Walls learned to spin good stories out of bad memories, writes the New York Times in a profile. The Glass Castle, a very powerful book, became an “instant classic.” Walls now lives with her husband on a farm in Virginia. Her mother lives in a cottage on the grounds.

Walls’s childhood was peripatetic, to say the least — her parents had 27 addresses in the first five years of their marriage. They were not only running out on the rent, but her father was convinced that the F.B.I. was after them. They finally landed in Rex’s Appalachian hometown, Welch, W.Va., in a three-room house without plumbing or heat, infested with snakes and rats. Walls says she still has nightmares about the yellow bucket the six of them used each night as a toilet.

“The Glass Castle,” beautifully written in deceptively simple prose, gets its name from the dream house Rex promised to build his family. He drew up the blueprints; he just needed to discover gold so he could pay for it.

Here’s how the book begins: At 3, Walls is on a chair in front of the stove in the family’s trailer, boiling hot dogs, because her mother is painting and can’t be bothered to cook. Walls’s pink-tutu dress catches fire, and her stomach, ribs and chest are badly burned. She is hospitalized for six weeks, until her father, irritated with the uppity doctors, breaks her out and takes her home. When she returns to the chair to cook more hot dogs, her mother says to her approvingly: “Good for you. You’ve got to get right back in the saddle.” Then she continues painting.

Her father died in 1994 at 59. Though he stole her savings to buy liquor — and once tried to pimp her out to a stranger in a bar — Walls thinks he “gave her the confidence to succeed.”

Rose Mary is more of an opaque figure; laser-sharp one day, maddeningly obtuse the next. Not to mention stunningly selfish. Once, when her children went hungry, as they often did, she saved a Hershey bar for herself.

Walls has accepted that her mother couldn’t care for herself, much less for her children. But she thinks there’s a reason that she and her sister never had children.

We all have our baggage, and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive it.” She met my eye. “So, O.K., Mom kept the chocolate bar. But she gave me a lot of good material.”

Walls went on to write Half-Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” about her grandmother. Her new book is her first work of fiction, The Silver Star. Even then, it deals with familiar themes: Two girls, 12 and 15, are abandoned by their mother and move to their parents’ hometown in Virginia.

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