Book Review: “The Glass Castle”

I know I’m a little late reading this one…it came out nine years ago! And even though it spent over a year on the NYT bestseller list, I had never heard of it. Bad bookworm!

So when a friend in my writer’s group gave me her copy of The Glass Castle, it might as well have been new to me. Like so many well-written books, I tore through it in one night, staying up until the wee hours to finish it.

The nutshell: it’s about Jeannette Walls‘ childhood being raised by an alcoholic father and an insane mother. Their father entertains the kids with wild tales of derring-do, always featuring himself as the hero, saving those who aren’t as smart or strong as he is. Their mother is an artist and writer who doesn’t understand why, as a grown woman, she can’t do what she wants (as opposed to being tied down to providing for a family).

Walls begins with childhood nievete, believing her parents’ fantasies that their life is just one grand adventure after another as they pick up stakes and “skedaddle” from one deserted mining town to another across the desert West in search of gold and a fresh start. Usually they pull what we call “ghetto moves,” where you grab only what can fit in the car and get out in the middle of the night, leaving behind most of your possessions – including, sometimes, pets. At one point they rent a moving truck and pack the four kids – including an infant – in the back for the 14-hour ride to their new home. In transit, the doors fly open, and the terrified Walls kids have no way to communicate with their parents for hours until a passing motorist signals their dad.

As the book progresses, Walls gradually begins to realize that her parents, though intellegent freethinkers, aren’t providing even the basic necessities for their kids. Their father drinks up all the money; their mother, though a certified teacher, refuses to work. She reluctantly agrees to get a job only under the most dire circumstances, and even then, skips school frequently and quits soon after. Even with resources at her disposal (a two-carat diamond ring, Texas oil fields worth $1 million and a house inherited from her mother), their mother regularly chooses “self-esteem” over food. A fine and noble sentiment for an individual; criminally neglectful for a parent. As a result, the kids often go hungry, digging in school trash cans for leftovers because there isn’t any food at home.

Food isn’t the only thing her parents don’t provide; Jeannette (and, once, her brother) is twice sexually assaulted by, once, a stranger who wandered into their house, and once, her uncle; not only do her parents act like it’s not a big deal, they won’t even take the most basic steps necessary to protect her, like locking the doors at night or leaving the uncle’s house. At one point, her father even lets some guy at a bar take her up to his room unsupervised. Unsurprisingly, the creepy dude attacks her, but she manages to cool him off by showing him her large scar.

Fed up, Jeannette and her sister hatch a plan to escape. They save all their earnings and have almost enough to send the eldest, Lori, to New York City after graduation, where she’ll set things up for Jeannette to follow later. But just weeks before she’s to leave, their father breaks into their piggy bank and steals all their money.

Like most (maybe all?) memoirs, this one ends on a positive note. I suppose it’s partly because readers, or publishers at least, like a Horatio Alger, up-by-the-bootstraps tale. Or, maybe it’s because only people who overcome, at least to some degree, a terrible upbringing are capable of writing about it later.

Though I never had an alcoholic parent, I can relate to the lifestyle she describes. My mother was, in many ways, like Walls’: a frustrated artist who couldn’t stand punching a timeclock, didn’t like to cook and didn’t see why she should have to do either. As a result, we, like the Walls, moved around constantly and lived in some pretty “substandard” houses. I never shared Jeannette’s wide-eyed excitement over picking up stakes and moving to who-knows-where, but as a literary device, it hooked me and didn’t let go. I know how this story will end, but does she?

Either way, this is an exciting, sad, hopeful, touching story. Read it.

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