The Glass Castle (2005) by Jeannette Walls has been on my radar for about ten years, but I never quite got around to reading it. My book club chose it as their next read, which was finally the motivation I needed.
The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls’ memoir of her childhood with her very difficult parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Her father was a smart, gifted, difficult, truculent, alcoholic. Her mother was artistic, addicted to excitement, and probably had some mental health issues. Jeannette grew up with her older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and her youngest sister Maureen. When she was young, her family moved constantly throughout the desert southwest–often running away from bills or the police. She and her siblings spent a lot of time hungry, and their parents were alternately inspiring, negligent, exciting and cruel.
Rex, a very charismatic and manipulative man, promised to build his children an amazing glass castle as their permanent home. In the book it represents all the empty promises made to his family. Jeannette was the child who kept faith in her father for the longest time. Even as her younger brother became disillusioned, Jeannette continued to believe in her father until it was undeniable that she could not trust anything he said.
Eventually Jeannette’s parents settle in a small, coal town in West Virginia, where Rex Walls had grown up. We meet Jeannette’s grandmother and uncle and can see where Rex may have picked up his penchant for alcohol. From this point on, it seems that Jeannette and her siblings’ lives get more chaotic. Rex falls further into his alcoholism, spending most of their very small amount of funds on himself. Rose Mary focuses on her art, neglecting her children. They live in a small cabin without running water and often without electricity that is literally falling apart around them. Jeannette is hounded at school for being dirty and unkempt. She struggles to get food to eat.
You might think that this is a harrowing story full of child abuse that is pure torture to read, but I really liked it. Despite everything Walls went through, she writes very clearly without pity or blame. She balances the horrible aspects of her parents along with the adventure, imagination, and love that made her who she is. There is no question that Jeannette made it through her childhood as a smart, fearless, kid who created an impressive life for herself.
Another aspect of this novel that made it more uplifting than I had expected was the relationship among the siblings–particularly between Jeannette and Brian. Perhaps because they could not count on their parents, the kids were especially loyal and protective of each other. Lori got in a brawl with her own grandmother over Brian. And they all pooled their money together in order to help get Lori out of the house and to New York after high school.
***SPOILER*** There were a number of scenes where I was shocked at the treatment of the children. These included having the kids (including an infant Maureen) ride for hours in the back of a U-Haul, her father’s throwing Jeannette (over and over) in the hot springs to teach her to swim, her mother sneaking chocolate when her hungry kids had nothing to eat, and both of the parents’ blase attitude toward potential sexual abuse. Yet perhaps the most heartbreaking scene was when Jeannette discovered that their father had stolen all their hard-earned “escape to New York-money” for drinking. ***END SPOILER***
This book was a fascinating page-turner that I read very quickly. At the same time, it is very emotional and compassionate. I’m very glad I finally read this one.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.