Thursday, September 25, 2008

Two differing accounts of struggling families

I read The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less by Terry Ryan back to back. Both are accounts of financially troubled families with alcoholic fathers.

The Glass Castle (TGC) is a journalistic account. Each scene is presented without any emotional description from Jeannette. This approach is necessary because the scenes are so horrifying one after another that it would be completely overwhelming to read if we weren't allowed to interpret as we read. With an alcoholic father, and a mother who refused to provide for the family both in a financial and nurturing way, the three children were left to fend for themselves. As they grew, it got worse, partly because the childhood veil that protects children from realizing the mistakes of parents is lifted and she is able to see more clearly the faults of her parents. The story is ultimately one of the resilience of children, although they have to wear the scars of each event. You have to have a very strong stomach to read this account. The first childhood memory is the three year old Jeannette boiling a hot dog and catching on fire. It will infuriate. While the children are eating out of trash cans at school so they don't starve, the mother is gaining weight while eating chocolate bars underneath the blanket. When the children plan their escape and start making and saving money to build a new life for themselves the father steals it to pay for his addictions of alcohol and gambling. It will make you sick, the first unaddressed instance of sexual abuse escalating to a show-down with guns between children. It should terrify you.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less (TPW) is historical account. The scenes aren't nearly as sensational, rather offering a "slice of life" approach. Despite the alcoholism, the father works when he is healthy enough to do so, keeping most of the pay check to pay for his addiction, but he tries, he is physically and emotionally abusive, but his furry can be avoided. The mother does everything in her power to provide for her family both financially and nurturing. She writes entry after entry for contests, and newspapers making a dollar at a time, or winning appliances. There are a few large sums of money that she wins enabling her to provide shelter for her family. She is fiercely dedicated to her children, and to hope. The scenes are frustrating, and shouldn't have to happen to anyone, but the terrifying element isn't there, because the mother is so nurturing and protective, allowing the children to have a childhood. This is a story of the power of a mother.

TGC seems to have been written on the advice of a therapist, while TPW was motivated by finding the evidence of a mother's struggle to be a mother and make what money she could. TGC is written better, with TPW relying on the entries of the mother to provide the literary magic.

If I were to use movie terms to classify the two accounts TGC would be an R-rated horror, and TPW would be a PG documentary. So, I enjoyed TPW much better because I like a good documentary, and horrors cause my already questionable sleep habits to become even worse.

If you get bored easily I don't think you will appreciate TPW, and will probably rush through TGC. But, I would recommend TPW over TGC, especially if you can appreciate a great word play or short poems.


Lisa Brown said...

I loved The Glass Castle. I remember thinking that she had such a horrible life, but still managed to have hope.

charrette said...

I loved the Glass Castle, and, sadly, only saw the movie version of the Prize Winner. I found that one equally horrifying...perhaps because it was all filmified. (new word)