Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

“Yo, padre!” he’d say. He’d challenge the priest about the unscientific impossibility of the miracles and when the priest continued to ignore him, he’d get mad and yell out something about Pope Alexander VI’s bastard children, or Pope Leo X’s hedonism, or Pop Nicholas III’s simony  or the murders committed in the name of the Church during the Spanish Inquisition. But what could you expect, he’d say, from an institution run by celibate men who wore dresses. 

Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette WallsThese words flowing from the always opinionated mouth of Jeannette Walls’ father made her worship time memorable and short. 

She begins her memoir, The Glass Castle, speaking not of her early childhood memories, but rather of herself as an adult sitting in a taxi worrying about whether she had overdressed for the evening’s events when she spots her mother digging through a dumpster. They’re only fifteen feet apart but in truth, a world of differences separate them. She watches as her mother hoists items from the dumpster, examines them and then laughs with glee at what pleases her. Her mother’s hair hangs tangled, dirty and matted while her eyes sink deep into her face making her sockets look like caves.

Feeling panic rising in her chest, Jeannette slides down into her seat and asks the driver to take her back to her home on Park Avenue. She’s come a long way from poverty, hunger, icicles hanging from the ceiling as she struggles to stay warm. She fears that someone going to the same lavish party as she will spot her if she speaks to her mother. Then her secret would be out for all to see the darkness from where she came.

This memoir struck a chord deep within me.

At times I felt myself pulled into memories of my own that entangled themselves into the words and experiences of Ms. Walls. With that said, this story of her childhood pushes the limits of what you could imagine a child’s experiences could be and still live through them emerging with grace and strength.  

I’ve asked myself whether it’s nature or nurture that makes us who we are. This memoir doesn’t answer that question but it certainly made me think about the implications of why it is that in the face of adversity some thrive and triumph while others languish. I have no answers for that, nor does the book. Walls leaves it to you, her reader, to take in her story and process it as you will. Each of us brings our personal experience and interpretation of the events making this particular book one that defies pat statements of theme or philosophy.

A father who lives in his own dream of building an environmentally friendly glass castle, a mother who spouts nonsense to rival a person high on something or other and children who manage to thrive in the midst of a tangled web of poverty, despair and eternal hope all make this book one I recommend to most readers looking for a bleak, yet inspiring memoir. It paints a portrait of the reality of a life lived through trial and travail and the experience Walls’ troubled, fascinating childhood in an intimate fashion—she brings her readers the gift of experiencing an unimaginable life. 

Walls creates a stunning and permanent flash of hope for the strength of individual character.  

Wrapped into this narrative of overcoming adversity, is the story of Walls finding her love of writing and photography while in high school. Although poor, struggling to maintain a semblance of cleanliness and often feeling her stomach growling with hunger, she still achieved academically. She became a writer for the school paper that shared a newsroom with the local paper. She made corrections, typeset lines with a hot wax machine and cut out lines for correction with an X-acto knife. 

I tried to remain inconspicuous in the newsroom, but one of the typesetters, a crabbed, chain smoking woman who always wore a hairnet, took a dislike to me. She thought I was dirty. When I walked by, she’d turn to the other typesetters and say loudly, “Y’all smell something funny?” …she took to spraying disinfectant and air freshener in my general direction…That was when I started going back to Grandpa and Uncle Stanley’s apartment for a weekly bath, thought when I was there, I made sure to give Uncle Stanley a wide berth.

Not only did Jeanette, her brother and sister suffer from lack of nutrition, clothing, and a functional home, they also experienced attempts to harm them both physically and with sexual overtures. Through all of this Jeannette and her brother rose above their tribulations to live a life very different from the one they had as children. The sister? She had, I believe, too much empathy for her mother.

Thin streams of muddy water water flowed across the road, seeping into my shoes and soaking my socks. The sole of my right shoe had come loose and flapped with each step.

Lori caught up with me, and we walked for a while in silence. “Poor Mom,” Lori finally said. “She’s got it tough.” 

“No tougher than the rest of us,” I said.

“Yes, she does,” Lori said. “She’s the one who’s married to Dad.”

“That was her choice,” I said. “She needs to be firmer, lay down the law for Dad instead of getting  hysterical all the time. What Dad needs is a strong woman.”

This exchange between the two sisters encapsulates the difference in how they approached the world. Jeannette saw strength as the tool to pull her out of the dire and dysfunctional family situation she lived in. Her sister reacted with sympathy and sorrow for her parents and their choices. They pivoted in two distinctly different ways.  Jeannette chose to travel a road her parents had never ventured upon, while her sister steadied herself and continued along the trail her parents had blazed.

An especially significant story in the book finds pre-teen Jeanette with her father as he sits in a bar drinking shot after shot of whiskey paid for with what could have been used for the family’s food. He orders Coca-Cola for her and whisky for himself until he could barely stumble out of the bar to lurch his way down the road to their hovel. A kindly man sees them walking, picks her father up and lays him in the bed of his pickup, while Jeannette climbs in the cab with the kind man. 

…the man asked me about school. I told him I wanted to become either a veterinarian or a geologist specializing in the Miocene period, when the mountains out west were formed. I was telling him how geodes were created from bubbles in lava when he interrupted me. “For a daughter of the town drunk, you sure got big plans,” he said. 

“Stop the truck,” I said. “We can make it on our own from here.”

From early childhood and into the present, Jeannette Walls carried herself with pride and determination. In a sense, she did benefit from her parents nomadic ways.

She had seen much that she disdained and much that she loved. Her grandmother on her mother’s side was a solid personality who gave them a home to live in and later left them that home and enough income that the family could have settled into a stable life. Neither her mother nor her father wanted that kind of dull and unimaginative future. They were both convinced that they were meant for something greater, so they wandered away leaving the house empty and the money spent like water cascading through a sieve. Despite moving in the dead of night to escape paying debts, landing in one broken down abode after another and many seasons of cold and hunger, Jeannette Walls had a vision of what was possible for her. Her mother and father could only envision life in a Glass Castle build from dreams and fantasies.

The Glass Castle reads as a series of family escapades that dip deeper and deeper into despair with Jeannette and her brother pulling themselves out of the abyss and into the bright lights of New York. Although, they survived life in a horribly dysfunctional family they also learned about dreams, intellectual insights and found faith in their own ability to climb out of the mountain of despair and into a life they could mold and create through the depth and determination they found in their own characters. 

This revelatory and ultimately uplifting memoir left me feeling that despite what obstacles may roll into one’s path, they can be surmounted with the strength of an individual’s spirit to guide them onward. It’s enough to say that while sad and shocking, this true story is inspiring. 

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