THE GLASS CASTLE
by Jeannette Walls
Paperback, 288 pages
Jeannette Walls had a childhood much different from most people’s. The daughter of a deadbeat dad and a free-spirited mother, she spent her early years bouncing around the US, “doing the skedaddle” whenever the rent money came up short. Although life seemed like a great adventure — her father, Rex, was a charismatic man capable of capturing his children’s imaginations and instilling them with a love of life — the Wallses faced devastating hardships. Rex couldn’t hold a job and spent every cent on liquor, and Mary, Jeannette’s mother, despised her domestic and motherly responsibilities.
The Glass Castle is Jeannette’s attempt to capture her childhood in all of its unique glory, chaos, and difficulty. Although she and her brother and sister were constantly hungry and often neglected, her family was one full of love.
This was a hard book to read. The treatment Jeannette and her siblings received at times was horrifying. To relay just a few incidents: Jeannette severely burned her body while cooking hot dogs on her own… at age three; her parents left her and her siblings in the car to bake in the Nevada heat while they spent hours in a bar; her parents refused to shut the doors of their house at night even after a pervert wandered in and touched Jeannette… because they didn’t have AC and they wanted the air to circulate; and when Jeannette confessed to Mary that her uncle had groped her, her mother totally brushed it off. Rex and Mary were NOT good parents… and yet they weren’t all bad. They were overflowing with love, and they taught their children to embrace life and to live without fear.
Walls does a fantastic job of capturing her family in all its complexity. Her portrayals of her parents and siblings are vibrant, layered, and dynamic. It must have been incredibly hard to write this book and expose to the world many of the facts of her youth. I think she is so brave to have written this book the way she did. She doesn’t make excuses for her parents; she presents them the way she remembers them and shows the reader that despite the bad times, there were good times, too. Her characters are beautiful and terrible. They are loving but incredibly flawed, and so, so human.
I didn’t love this book as much as I had expected to. Even though it was published eight years ago, I have heard from many people who absolutely loved this memoir. I went into it expecting to read something life changing. I really enjoyed it, but it didn’t change my life — although it absolutely gave me perspective on my own childhood problems. I might have been totally miserable in high school, but hey, at least I had indoor plumbing. I think my expectations were just too high, and I was hoping for something more profound than most books can deliver.
The Glass Castle was a very good read, though. It maybe didn’t change my life, but it was absorbing (how can you NOT continue reading in horror, wondering what bizarre, awful thing is going to happen next?) and well written. Walls is a strong storyteller, and her characters are beautifully drawn. Toward the end, she also makes some really interesting observations about choice and the ability to succeed. I don’t think this book will be a favorite of mine, but it was well worth the read.