Until then, when I thought of writers, what first came to mind was Mom, hunched over her typewriter, clattering away on her novels and plays and philosophies of life and occasionally receiving a personalized rejection letter. But a newspaper reporter, instead of holing up in isolation, was in touch with the rest of the world. What the reporter wrote influenced what people thought about and talked about the next day; he knew what was really going on. I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on.
In seventh grade Jeannette is the first person her age to work for the school newspaper, The Maroon Wave. She seeks it out as a place where she can belong and have an identity without worrying about people teasing her for being poor or dirty or criticizing her parents. During her work with the school newspaper Jeannette discovers what she wants to do with her life and what she later ends up doing: journalism. It is important that she not keep her work to herself or experience it alone, like her mother, but rather that it exist as a dialogue between her and the rest of the world.
If you don't want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.
Rex teaches Jeannette how to swim by literally forcing her to sink or swim. He repeatedly throws her into a sulfur spring in the desert, rescuing her when she sinks only to throw her back in again. Using these methods, Rex is able to train Jeannette to paddle and swim in order to avoid being thrown back into the water. This strategy is representative of Rose Mary and Rex's general approach to parenting. Refusing to coddle their children, they often present them with challenges, some life threatening, that the children are forced to handle.
I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn't have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.
After the hotel where they are staying burns down, a young Jeannette begins to think that fire is a recurring part of her life. She believes that her encounters with fire are all connected and impacted by each other. Most importantly, she realizes that her life is unpredictable and her status transient. Fire is sudden and damaging and capable of changing the trajectory of one's life in an instant. Jeannette's early experiences with fire foreshadow the combustive events to follow in her life.
Mom frowned at me. 'You'd be destroying what makes it special' she said, 'It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives it its beauty'.
When Jeannette devises a plan to aright the Joshua tree which has grown sideways in the direction of the constant wind that passes over it, her mother quickly dismisses the idea. Rose Mary claims that the tree is beautiful not because it grows straight like the other trees, but rather because its struggle defines it and makes it unique. Rose Mary is typically unwilling to tamper with nature and she is particularly drawn to the unique form of the Joshua Tree. Through the figure of the tree a young Jeannette learns an important lesson about non-conformity.
After dinner the whole family stretched out on the benches and the floor of the depot and read, with the dictionary in the middle of the room so we kids could look up words we didn't know...Occasionally, on those nights when we were all reading together, a train would thunder by, shaking the house and rattling the windows. The noise was thunderous, but after we'd been there a while, we didn't even hear it.
This scene depicts one of the few peaceful, bonding moments shared between members of the Wells family. Not coincidentally, the family bonds around literature and reading. The importance of this scene is two-fold. Firstly, it debunks stereotypes about the homeless being uneducated or dumb and shows that even those without means can be learned. Secondly, it shows how Jeannette becomes influenced at a young age by the written word and is a possible explanation for her later interest in journalism. It is the parents' literary bent that ultimately saves the children, by giving them the education that allows them to escape their parents' life.
We're not poor.
When the Walls receive a ride from a stranger after their vehicle breaks down on the highway, Jeannette is annoyed by the tone of the woman who offers to drive them home. She is particularly put off by the woman's frequent use of the word 'poor' to describe the family. Attempting to defend the dignity of her parents and siblings, Jeannette firmly asserts that the family is not poor and the woman quickly apologizes. Following this incident, Jeannette begins to define herself apart from her and her family's situation and she refuses to accept the disdain presented to her by some members of society.
Situations like these, I realized, were what turned people into hypocrites
Jeannette stands up to her grandmother, Erma when she questions Jeannette's friendship with a African American classmate. When Erma gets angry, Jeannette is surprised that her parents aren't more supportive of her bravery in countering authority. Rex and Rose Mary are less concerned about Jeannette learning non-conformist practices as they are afraid that they will be kicked out of Erma's home. As a result, they chastise their daughter for angering her grandmother. After this incident, Jeannette realizes that even her parents can be forced to conform if the consequences of rebelling are severe enough.
'Oh Yeah?' I said. 'How about Hitler?What was his redeeming quality?'
'Hitler loved dogs,' Mom said without hesitation.
Rose Mary tries to teach Jeannette a lesson in compassion. She explains that even the worst of people have good qualities. Jeannette is frustrated with the prejudice of her grandmother towards Blacks but Rose Mary encourages Jeannette to instead find her grandmother's positive traits and understand the upbringing that indoctrinated her with such hateful ideas. She wants Jeannette to understand, not judge.
Later that night, Dad stopped the car out in the middle of the desert, and we slept under the stars. We had no pillows, but Dad said that was part of his plan. He was teaching us to have good posture. The Indians didn't use pillows, either, he explained, and look how straight they stood. We did have our scratchy army-surplus blankets, so we spread them out and lay there, looking up at the field of stars. I told Lori how lucky we were to be sleeping out under the sky like Indians.
'We could live like this forever,' I said.
'I think we're going to,' she said.
This passage illustrates a number of important characterizations in the memoir. Rex, is always dreaming up fantastic alternatives to reality to make life more adventurous for his children. Rex communicates serious situations as privileges and excitement. Jeannette is the only one who plays along with these fantasies of her father's. She believes the words he says, or at least, at a later age, the intent behind them. Though this is early in the memoir, already Lori shows signs of cynicism. She has already stopped believing fully in her father's fantasies and instead sees the reality of their circumstances.
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. 'You see?' she said. 'Right there. That's exactly what I'm saying. You're way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.'
'And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?'
'Just tell the truth,' Mom said. 'That's simple enough.'
This conversation takes place immediately before Jeannette's description of her childhood. Her mother behaves almost like a muse invoking Jeannette's story and giving her the confidence to tell it. This quote also reveals some of Jeannette's apprehensions about letting her colleagues and friends know the truth about her life growing up. Even in adulthood, she has a hard time accepting the truth of her upbringing and fears that the past will somehow damage her present happiness.
The Glass Castle Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Glass Castle is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.