Jeannette Walls proves in her astounding memoir that bad parenting and abject poverty do not necessarily condemn children to a dismal future of the same. In “The Glass Castle” published in 2005 by Scribner, Walls reveals the intimate details of her upbringing within a dysfunctional yet loving family.
“The Glass Castle” immediately grips you with an opening scene in which Walls, as an adult in New York City, sees from the window of her taxi her mother scrounging through a dumpster. Her mother is homeless – one of those bag ladies that all of us see – but now you suddenly have to wonder what it would feel like if that was your mother dangling at the fringe of our society.
From this shocking moment, Walls transports you back to her earliest memory. She is three years old and suffers a terrible burn to her torso when her dress catches on fire as she is boiling hotdogs on the stove. A long stay at the local hospital near where her family is currently living in Arizona ensues while Walls recovers. To the hospital staff, the negligence of the parents is obvious, but Jeannette does not associate the murmuring disapproval around her with her parents.
If any action on the part of social services is planned, we never find out because her father, Rex Walls, plans an early check out from the hospital in his trademark “Rex Walls’ style.” This means that he will grab his little girl and skip out of the hospital bill that he has no intention or means of paying.
Jeannette is whisked away with her father, mother, older sister and younger brother and the family hits the road. It begins just one of many journeys in which the Walls family ends up in ramshackle trailers and shacks throughout the deserts of Nevada, Arizona, and California. They stay someplace a while until Rex can’t pay the rent or won’t and they skip town and do it all over again.
Rex inspired the title of the book with the plans, lovingly worked out on paper, for his “glass castle” that he aspires to build some day. He often reassures his children with the promise of this fanciful housing. It is to be a solar-powered house, but first he needs to raise the money to build it, which entails numerous gold prospecting schemes that are doomed to failure. Because gold-hunting never pays the bills, Rex also finds work as an electrician or handyman. He is smart and mechanically talented, but his earnings inevitably are washed away in the flash floods of drinking that perpetually leave his family destitute.
In an engulfing narrative that sweeps you deeper into an almost unimaginable existence of privation, we see how Jeannette and her siblings cope with their destructively alcoholic father and beg their mother to function and get them food. The mother, in fact, has a teaching degree, but she rarely can drag herself into employability. Although the various rural areas where they live are always desperate for a qualified teacher, the mother cannot abide work and only occasionally holds down a job – with the help of her children who get her out of bed.
The infrequent paychecks of the mother rarely go into the rumbling bellies of her children. Rex will invariably claim his wife’s paycheck and set about squandering it.
This desperate state goes on for years as the Walls children sleep in cardboard boxes instead of beds, endure scalding fights between their parents, and eat anything they can find. Their mother teaches them how to swallow spoiled food by holding their noses.
But even amid these horrors of poverty and alcoholism, Jeannette Walls expresses the genuine love within her family. They are loyal to each other, and Rex, in his sober moments, is wise, encouraging, and tender with his children.
In her memoir, Walls brilliantly crafts her experiences so that we can see the transformation of awareness that takes place as she grows up. As a little girl, she is uncritical of her parents. She loves them and does not realize how awfully deprived her life is. But as she and her siblings mature, they definitely realize that the shortcomings of their parents are not acceptable.
The adolescent years of Jeannette are spent in West Virginia, where her father retreats to his hometown after going completely bust in Arizona. The life of the Walls in West Virginia is appalling as they occupy a shack at “93 Little Hobart Street.” The roof leaks. The plumbing does not work. The Walls family buries its trash and sewage in little holes it digs. They almost never have any food. Jeannette goes through high school digging leftover sandwiches out of the garbage, and Rex fills the role of town drunk. As miserable want defines their lives, Jeannette’s mother does the most infuriating things. When Jeannette and her brother find a diamond ring, they immediately want to sell it for food, but their mother keeps it to “improve her self esteem.” And so they go on starving.
As Jeannette Walls tells the story of her disgraceful upbringing, you will admire her perseverance and that of her siblings. The Walls children eventually take charge of their own lives and support each other into normal adult lives in a beautiful display of closeness among siblings.
Every page of “The Glass Castle” will shock you with the shameless and selfish actions of parents who are unable and unwilling to even try to take care of their children or themselves. Despite her appalling parents, Walls rarely chastises them with her writing. Her love for her parents often comes through with aching dismay.
Much more happens throughout this amazing memoir than has been mentioned here. “The Glass Castle” is mesmerizing and an impossible book to put down. It is truly a masterpiece of storytelling and far superior than the typical bestseller.