Award-winning author ‘writes’ the wrongs of difficult childhood
Posted: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 8:59 pm
Special Features Editor
She wrote the book for two groups of young people: those who are poor and those who are wealthy. The latter group, as defined by award-winning author Jeannette Walls, is made up of those whose families pay their bills on time.
The best-seller story is her own — the tale of a child of poverty that didn’t have to be.
“The Glass Castle: A Memoir” is an award-winning narrative of Ms. Walls’ growing up years. Raised in a deeply dysfunctional family with three siblings, the author knew first-hand what it was like to eat food scavenged from trash cans, to live in squalid housing, to find even minimal hygiene a challenge and to love her parents, her brother and her two sisters with a fierce and protective love.
Numerous hardships were visited on the family, thanks to the refusal of the author’s eccentric and alcohol-challenged father and mother, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, to accept responsibility for their children’s well-being. But Ms. Walls lived up to the nickname bestowed on her by her father, “Mountain Goat,” and managed to scale the rough and threatening peaks of a sometimes adventure-filled, sometimes thought-provoking and most-times squalid childhood and adolescence.
She eventually received a degree with honors from Barnard College and went on to establish a career in communications, writing for New York Magazine, Esquire and USA Today, as well as appearing on The Today Show, CNN, Primetime and The Colbert Report. In 2007, she left her assignment as “gossip columnist” at MSNBC.com’s “Scoop” to write full-time.
“The Glass Castle,” which has been on the Top 10 best-seller list for two years, details her turbulent growing up years in Arizona, Nevada and West Virginia. The book has sold in excess of 1.5 million copies and been translated into more than 16 languages. Walls and her husband, journalist John Taylor, make their home in Culpepper, Va., where she recently penned the story of her maternal grandmother — Lily Casey Smith — in fictional first-person format. Her second best-seller and top-10 list-er is “Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel.”
Ms. Walls has been invited to visit Obion County March 8-9. It is an invitation that includes a session at Union City Civic Auditorium at 10 a.m. March 9 to talk about her books and her life to high school students from Union City, South Fulton and Obion County Central high schools. Students attending must have read “The Glass Castle.”
On March 8, she will be stopping by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Tennessee-Union City and then moving on to Hampton Centré, where she will be the featured guest at the 2011 Union City Rotary Club’s Obion County Distinguished Speakers Foundation event. Tickets for cocktails, dinner, Ms. Walls’ speech and a book signing and possible photo session with the world-famous author are $150 and are on sale at Lanzer’s Printing and Office Supply in downtown Union City or by contacting Angie Morrow at 885-0366 or at 884-0088 or Kristi Kizer at 446-8422. Ticket sale deadline is March 1 and sales are brisk, a spokesman said.
“After all, it’s not every day we have the opportunity to meet a famous author and hear her discuss her book,” Rotarian Clay Woods says.
Ms. Walls also hopes to visit the Obion County Public Library, if her schedule permits.
A committee of local citizens interested in Union City Director of Schools Gary Houston’s goal of encouraging reading at every age level began looking at ways to promote love of the printed word and hit on the idea of inviting an author to visit the area. Woods, who has collaborated with Houston on many other reading and educational projects, decided to begin at the top of the best seller list and approached Ms. Walls at a book signing. He described the dream of uniting the community in a reading adventure and detailed the role the committee envisioned her fulfilling in this area.
Woods noted that the committee, which includes educators, Obion County Public Library personnel, media representatives and others with an interest in the printed word, wanted to offer high school students the opportunity to read “The Glass Castle” and then to submit questions about it and hear the author’s responses and additional information she felt would be valuable to them. He added that the committee recognized those outside the high school range would also have an interest in reading the popular book and interacting with its best-selling author.
A salesman by profession, Woods did a first-rate job convincing Ms. Walls to buy into the idea of a community read-a-thon capped off by the opportunity to meet both the author and the subject of the book selected for this first-time foray into print-bonding.
Armed with the writer’s enthusiastic commitment to travel to Obion County, Woods, Houston and the committee moved on to the second phase of the project: making sure the book was available free of charge to the high school students who wanted to read it and then, through the Obion County Public Library and local outlets such as Walmart, to adults who wanted to enjoy the opportunity. Their hope was that an overwhelming number of local citizens would become involved in reading and discussing the book as families, friends, book-lovers and those new to the joys of the printed word.
In collaboration with school administrators and teachers, the committee worked out a family-friendly approach for each of the schools involved.
At UCHS, during the month of February, all students will be taking part in twice-weekly 30-minute reading periods. These reading opportunities will take place following lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “The Glass Castle” is the recommended book-of-choice for all students during this time and personal copies will be provided for each student through the Union City Schools Foundation. Because the book contains some explicit language and details some brief but mature scenes, parents have been asked to sign release slips in approval of the assignment. Students/families who choose not to read the book have been offered optional titles drawn from classics. According to UCHS principal Wes Kennedy, an overwhelming number of students have expressed an interest in the suggested book and are eager to see what Walls has to say.
At SFHS, English dual enrollment classes completed the book prior to their Christmas break and gave it rave reviews. All other seniors are now being assigned the book, with an opt-out option. At OCCHS, all juniors and seniors are being assigned the book; again, with an opt-out option from parents. “The Glass Castle” will be provided for all students taking part.
“I am excited that our students are going to have the opportunity to hear an award-winning author. Ms. Walls’ story is touching and, I believe, will be an eye-opening experience for the majority of our students,” said Nancy Hamilton, Obion County School System Supervisor of Instruction for grades 9-12.
Only students who have read the book will be able to attend the March 9 session at the civic auditorium.
Walmart has several dozen paperback copies of the book available for those who are not a part of the in-school reading program but want to be part of the county-wide reading initiative for all ages.
Woods said his reading of the book and his subsequent conversation with Ms. Walls convinced him her message was a valuable one. Not only does her work offer proof that individuals can survive harsh conditions and triumph (Ms. Walls’ parents not only refused to seek meaningful employment to support their family, but they also refused government assistance, forcing their children to live — at various times — in the open, in their car and in abandoned, leaking dwellings lacking running water or electricity), it compels those who have not faced such overwhelming odds themselves to decide if they will applaud the courage and tenacity of those who persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles or if they will simply demean and condemn the individuals born into such circumstances.
He says Ms. Walls’ contention that “rich kids” are simply those whose parents can afford to pay their bills on time was a real revelation and thought-provoker for him and he believes that simple idea is just a taste of the eye-opening perspective the author presents in her book and her speeches. Further, her explanation that the book was intended to encourage young people, especially, to look beyond circumstances, to find value in each individual life and to bravely meet and overcome challenges is a commitment he and the committee feel they want to encourage.
“Ms. Walls said she wrote ‘The Glass Castle’ to let poor students know they can get out of poverty, with education as the avenue. She also wrote it to let ‘rich’ kids see what life is like on the ‘other side.’ For some on the other side — like she and her siblings were — it can be impossible to bathe or wash clothes on a regular basis. Children who are raised in such circumstances know that their classmates, and even adults, react to this failure of basic hygiene negatively without understanding the situation the children find themselves in. Children raised in poverty like that experienced by Ms. Walls know there may be no money to buy even basics like school lunches, so they learn to make excuses for their absence during those school hours set aside for eating together and instead scrounge scraps from trash cans for solitary meals. Sometimes things are not what they seem on the surface. Ms. Walls’ book deals with some hard realities and her story needs to be heard by all of us,” Woods says.
Published in The Messenger 1.5.11