Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Armchair Traveler Book Challenge, Entry 1

Ok, the challenge has only just begun and already I've changed a book choice for it. I'm writing this tonight and skipping ahead of my June books, since a) I don't feel like writing nearly a dozen book reviews tonight, and b) I lost my list of what I read while on my travels. So, I'm going to skip ahead to my new selection for the book challenge and I'm debating what I'm going to get rid of in the mean time.

So, my first book for the Armchair Traveler Challenge is
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. It is a memoir Walls wrote about growing up with her eclectic parents: alcoholic dad Rex and dreamer mom Rose Mary. The Walls family lives like nomads at the beginning of the book--packing up in the middle of the night and leaving whatever home they're in to escape bill collectors, police, and child welfare workers. They travel around the US Southwest until their money runs out, and they are forced to move in with Rex's family in West Virginia. At this point, the Walls children start to plan their escape from the craziness of their upbringing and make plans to go to New York City to start fresh, new lives where they are unknown.

I borrowed this book from Lauren, and I hadn't really considered using it for the challenge, I think because I wasn't really sure what it was all about. However, the writing was superb and the description of the family homes and travels led me to think about using it as my first choice. Walls vividly describes the succession of crumbling homes and small towns where they live with such talent that you can picture where she is, despite never having been there. Having recently visited the Southwest for the first time, I had a better understanding of how desolate the little towns could be and what the landscape was like, and it was interesting to hear of the Walls family's issues with the law and how they continued to move and soldier on in the face of incredible odds.

I thought I'd share a few passages of the book where the descriptions were quite good and made me think of where they were. (All material copyright Jeannette Walls)

We moved around like nomads. We lived in dusty little mining towns in Nevada, Arizona, and California. They were usually nothing but a tiny cluster of sad, sunken shacks, a gas station, a dry-goods store, and a bar or two. They had names like Needles and Bouse, Pie, Goffs, and Why, and they were near places like the Superstition Mountains, the dried up Soda Lake, and the Old Woman Mountain. The more desolate a place, the better Mom and Dad liked it... Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet of fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed...

I have a feel for the places, although I've never been and probably never will.
She didn't use a lot of words to describe the places, but you definitely had a sense of where they were and what they could see.

I'm just going to tuck in a description of one town they lived in, Battle Mountain, as it was one of my favorite places they lived.

Battle Mountain had started out as a mining post, settled a hundred years earlier by people hoping to strike it rich, but if anyone ever had struck it rich in Battle Mountain, they must have moved somewhere else to spend their fortune. Nothing about the town was grand except the big empty sky and, off in the distance, the stony purple Tuscarora Mountains running down the table-flat desert.

The main street was wide--with sun-bleached cars and pickups parked at an angle to the curb--but only a few blocks long, flanked on both sides with low, flat-roofed buildings made of adobe or brick. A single streetlight flashed red day and night. Along Main Street was a grocery store, a drugstore, a Ford dealership, a Greyhound bus station, and two big casinos, the Owl Club and the Nevada Hotel. The buildings, which seemed puny under the huge sky, had neon signs that didn't look like they were on during the day because the sun was so bright.

In Battle Mountain, the Wallses moved into an old building on the railroad tracks, and rather than purchase more furniture they'd have to leave behind, the children slept inside refrigerator boxes and they all used large industrial spools for tables and chairs. I can't even imagine it.

Eventually the elder Wallses become homeless after following their children to NYC (this is not a spoiler, considering on the first page, Jeannette talks about seeing her mom dumpster diving). There was a quality about Rex and Rose Mary--crazy though they were--that I liked. At the end, when their squatting leads to an opportunity to buy a place in the building, it's almost as if the optimist in Rose Mary knew it would all work out. Rex's alcoholism and the issues of his family certainly are disturbing--particularly in Rex's dismissal of claims of sexual abuse against the children--and yet there's something that leads you to pity Rex as well and feel a warmth for him as he does his best to keep the children free and moving.

A great book, a lot of great places and people, all of it sticks with you quite vividly, and I was pleased that the places played as important a role as the people and the story. One down, five to go :-) I hope they're all this good!

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