Books · Health and Disabilities

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

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The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls * Format: Kindle * 3/1/2005

๐Ÿ˜ธ๐Ÿ˜ธ๐Ÿ˜ธ๐Ÿ˜ธ๐Ÿ”ตย (Rated 4/5 happy lap cats)

 

The book The Glass Castle is the story of the childhood years of the book’s author, journalist Jeannette Walls. Ms Walls family was unusual, teaching her self-sufficiency and persistence, sometimes in the midst of exciting adventures, but more often over the course of years of deprivation.

We meet the author, Jeanette, when she’s a precocious 3 year old, who’s devised a process that allows her to boil hotdogs on the stove all by herself, while her mother paints in the next room. She doesn’t need her mother’s approval or supervision, because her parents believe in their children’s independence to the extreme. Jeanette’s clothing catches fire on the stove while cooking those hotdogs, and her mother rushes her to the hospital with severe burns that require skin grafts and more than 6 weeks in the hospital.

Jeanette doesn’t know how much more than 6 weeks it would have been, because, at that point, her dad came to “rescue” her from the cleanliness, safety, order, regular meals, and quiet of the hospital. The author makes it clear that her hospital room was the safest part of her entire childhood. And that, not only did her father disagree with the way the hospital treated her burns, he skipped out on the bill.

It’s sink or swim for the Walls family children, quite literally, as Jeanette discovers a couple of years later, when her father “teaches” her to swim by repeatedly letting her nearly drown. He tells her afterward that he wouldn’t have done this if he didn’t have to, for her own good. Living with Rex, an alcoholic, dreamer and gambler, and Rose Mary, an artist and self-described excitement addict, is one big bundle of manipulative mixed messages.

The family spends the first ten years of the author’s life bouncing from one small Southwestern town to the next, with 6 months becoming a very long stay in one place. The stay in each town starts out as a magical adventure, with a promising new job for dad, a new market for mom’s art, and a new patch of desert and town for the family to explore.

But, eventually, Rex will get into an argument with his boss and lose his job, the bill collectors will catch to them, or some other form of excitement that comes from neglecting the kids or Rex’s alcoholism will force them to make a run for it.

However, the author still has many fond memories of that time, since between the year round nice weather and the youth and energy of the entire family, the kids were never too hungry, cold, or bullied. When things got desperate, they camped out in the desert and lived off the land for a while, or stayed with Rose Mary’s mother. But, then grandma dies, and they live in an inherited house in Phoenix until that well also runs dry.

With no one to fall back on in the southwest, they move to Welch, WV, where Rex is from, to live with his family for a while. Welch is a dirt poor, failing little coal mining town, and Rex’s family are racist, physical and sexual abusers. What had been severe, but survivable, neglect in the southwest becomes very dangerous poverty as winter arrives in the cold, wet mountains. Both Rex and Rose Mary refuse to work, and the family moves from Rex’s family’s abusive household into a falling down, old house with no heat, plumbing, or electricity.

The kids struggle to feed, clothe, clean, and warm themselves for the rest of the time they live at home in Welch. Their parents sink into worse and worse neglect and abuse, as both parents become willing to feed or otherwise indulge themselves but not their children, and occasionally even beat their children if they dare complain about the situation.

Eventually, the older three kids band together to get all four kids out of Welch. At first they experience heartbreaking setbacks, but eventually their planning pays off and the oldest makes it to NYC. Eventually they all have the chance to build new lives for themselves.

Ms Walls continues the story into her adulthood and the death of her father, though in less detail than her childhood and adolescent years. She gives us some basic details of how she and her siblings have fared as adults.

My one criticism of the book is the way the author downplays of some of her experiences. She romanticizes her father’s abusiveness and her mother’s callous neglect at times so that it sounds like their behavior, for example uprooting the family every few months and leaving everything behind in the middle of the night, was more fun than not, because that’s what her parents told her. But at other times, in other passages, it’s clear that, while the period in the southwest was the best part of her childhood, it was still filled with deprivation, uncertainty, and events that would scar any child. It’s as though she still hasn’t completed processed some of the events she emotionally distanced herself from as a child.

As part of downplaying her experiences, she glosses over the effects that her childhood has had on her relationships and choices in adulthood, and those of her siblings. Have any of her siblings become or married alcoholics? Have they been through counseling? Does she worry that she’ll lose everything and end up being homeless again? Was it hard for her to learn to trust in the honesty of a partner? How has she come to terms with her parents’ choices that led to such unnecessary deprivation for their children?

While Ms Walls has been generous in sharing her story with us, the story would have been richer if she’d given us just a little more emotional insight.

That being said, otherwise, this is an amazing book which I wholeheartedly recommend! It can be difficult to read at times, because of the abuse and neglect, but it also portrays an incredible triumph of the human spirit. The Walls family loved each other, despite Rex’s alcoholism, and Rose Mary’s undiagnosed mental illness. (I’m going to be generous and call it that, rather than extreme self absorption and selfishness.) They had good times, and Jeannette Walls vividly brings those times to life.

Her writing is at it’s best when she’s talking about her early childhood in the desert, before her father’s alcoholism consumed most of his time, when the children ran free in their own world. It’s obvious that Ms Walls loved the southwest and remembers that time fondly.

The writing is still vivid when we get to Welch, but becomes bogged down a bit, of necessity, because it was such a depressing time in the author’s life. She, and we, reach the point where we can’t wait for her to escape, and we feel every disappointment and victory along the way, right along with her and her siblings. This is the period of time when her parents’ actions become hard to forgive. The siblings’ generosity, love and care for each other almost makes up for their parents’ failings.

The titular Glass Castle is Rex’s self-designed dream house. He spends his life chasing the fortune to build it, neglecting the family that he’s already built. He pulls out the designs periodically throughout his life to use for bonding moments with his family, especially Jeannette, his champion. When his kids are adults, he seems to have some self-awareness, finally, of what’s happened to the family, and to readjust his dreams. But it can’t make up for the lifetime of choices he’s already made.

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