Now a major motion picture from Lionsgate starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts. MORE THAN SEVEN YEARS ON THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST The perennially bestselling, extraordinary, one-of-a-kind, "nothing short of spectacular" (Entertainment Weekly) memoir from one of the world's most gifted storytellers. The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette's brilliant and charismatic father captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want the responsibility of raising a family. The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered. The Glass Castle is truly astonishing--a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.
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Walls has a non-fiction novel coming out this month, so I decided to re-read the book that started all the ruckus before I got Half-Broke Horses.
A little backstory: I was romantically involved with a man for some time while I lived in Austin, whom I met on a bus. I got on the bus, sat a
I was mid-mental ravishment when Blondie upset the applecart by bursting into tears. As quietly as he could, of course, but tears. A stop later, still crying. Stop after that, still crying. I got up, moved into the seat next to him across the aisle, and said, "What the hell're you reading? I wanna be sure I never set an eyeball on it." That got a laugh, and he held up The Glass Castle and said it was sort of the story of his life.
We talked for four hours that day. I gave him my email and number, and things progressed pretty smoothly until August of last year, but that's another story.
He'd just read Walls's tale of her father taking her pubescent self to a pool-hall and getting her within an inch of getting raped, just so he'd have beer money. It struck a chord, and the story of his own stepfather's abuses of Mr. Man came spewing out of him. I've read the book before just now, specifically so I could discuss it with Mr. Man, but I did so with an already numbed horror bone and a severed humor tendon.
Only now that I am several years beyond that initial encounter with the book can I see how very funny the tragic events in it are, and were to the author. I can see that it's gallows humor of a sort...but also that it's all perfect proof that life's a Zen joke.
If you can chuckle at Dolly Parton's apercu, "You have no idea how much it costs to look this cheap," then Walls is the next step up the Sisyphean slope of learning how to laugh like the Dalai Lama. It's a hard life that etches grooves in the looking-glass, but it's a path worth taking if you can get to the place where "textured" is valued more than smooth. Read the book, you'll know what I mean.
You are lucky that the scar you received at age three when you caught on fire cooking hotdogs is the only permanent physical mark on your body. Between rolling out of your moving family car, sleeping in cardboard boxes, living in houses infested with giant rats, and never having enough to eat, one would think that you would not have lived to see adulthood. But you did. You managed to get away from your psychotic parents and make a life for yourself. Congratulations.
You may not be much of a writer, Ms. Walls - do you have any emotions? I certainly did not detect any - but you have a story that halts the reader in her tracks. Every few pages I wanted to turn to someone and say, "can you believe this?" In fact, my students who are reading your memoir do just that. For this, I am eternally grateful to you. Your story caused non-readers, kids who do not enjoy school, to ask, no, beg, to spend an entire period reading. Do you know how rare that is? Trust me, it is rare.
You never seem to regret your upbringing, and I do find this troubling. Do you really think you benefitted from your parents' unconventional methods? Maybe a person can get used to anything, if it is all they ever know. Or maybe you just held back in your writing, worried you would wound your family. Lucky for the reader, while you skimped on the emotions, you never withheld the facts. We see for ourselves the horrors you experienced, and we can condemn, even if you cannot.
So, Ms. Walls, I find myself with mixed feelings regarding your memoir. On the one hand, it is a great teaching tool. But on the other, I am not thrilled with your emotional distance, or the message that you seem to be sending. The very fact that you were never taken away from your parents is a failure of justice. Yes, you survived, but at what cost to yourself? By the end of The Glass Castle, I was still shaking my head - not at your parents, but at you. Yes, family is important, but at some point you need to ask yourself: is your family a source of love, or a source of pain?
It's a distressing tale, and I've seen reviewers comment that Walls had probably put a creative spin on the facts to tell a more dramatic story, but I'm not so sure that her story owes more to fiction than reality. From a personal point of view, the level of dysfunction in her family made my strange upbringing seem completely normal and conventional in comparison, but then, hopefully that would be the case for most readers as well. However, having been a witness to very strange and unconventional situations and known people who were most definitely living on the fringe of society, I know that her story is unfortunately all too possible. Walls has a dispassionate way of recounting her past and gives us just enough detail so we can imagine ourselves right there with them all too well, but I found it was impossible to look away; it was an absolutely fascinating observation of a catastrophe extending over several decades, yet it also told of incredible resilience and love, and of siblings who truly looked out for one another and not only survived, but managed to become well-adjusted adults. Walls was able to surmount all the difficulties she faced and get an excellent education, and went on to become a successful journalist, so that while she tells us of her "white trash" background, she's able to describe it to us with intelligence and detachment and deliver a book that I'm almost ashamed to say was a pleasure to read (or in this case, listen to).
It's also possible to view Walls' unconventional upbringing as the source of her strength, and her parents as simply creative, unconventional people with a sense of adventure who didn't believe in spoiling their children (in any way). That's probably the best thing about this book – there will be many different reactions, because the author has written objectively and left it up to the reader to pass judgment on her parents.
I highly recommend this book. It's generating some great discussion in the online book club. It's especially interesting to see the children's growing awareness, as they get older, that their family's adventures are not normal.
A memoir seems to free the author from being precise and Walls takes full advantage of this. No dates, no maps, no confirmation of even the simplest claims like Rex being an Air Force pilot, and no pictures save the idealized wedding photo of Rex and Rose Mary. Oh! how much the book would have gained if we could have seen Rose Mary’s portraits of her kids.
The style of the book is unremarkable; although Walls has an annoying penchant for hyperbole, her favorite qualifier is always, as in “Everyone always turned and stared at Dad”. The vocabulary is unchallenging and the imagery never goes beyond cliche. At one point, even the author recognizes the banality of her own simile and tries to cover herself by admitting her giving Rex stitches was sewing meat.
The memoir is told in 5 parts, the first section occurs at some point in the late 80’s and describes the author’s embarrassed meeting with Rose Mary in New York City. The next two sections are the bulk of the memoir and are told in what appears to be chronological order and cover her early childhood from 1963-1970 in the Great American Desert and 1970-1978 in a sooty, dying coal town in Appalachia. Section 4 covers the period 1978-1987 or so in New York City as the author escapes Rex and Rose Mary only to have them follow her. The last section, as brief as Section 1, shoots past Section 1 in time and describes a family Thanksgiving gathering where the author reflects on the past covered in Section 2.
The story telling is merely the chronological chain of anecdotes; the root cause of each anecdote is either Rex’s alcoholism, Rose Mary’s childishness, or the kids being ill-equipped to fend for themselves. Sometimes the writing has a thrown together feel, I think of the anecdote of the cornered river rat where the author introduces the dog to us because she needs it to kill the rat by the end of the sentence. In another place the author needed to move into an apartment so out of the blue she introduces her boyfriend of several years, Eric, so she can move in with him. Eric is a lightly sketched plot-enabler, not a person; the author never describes her relationship with him or shares any adventures they had together. Although the author marries Eric, only his apartment is used to construct her self-image and thereby gets more attention than its owner.
I applaud how the author borrows a technique of Dickens which is to contrast the adult who acts like a child with real children who have to assume adult duties. And there is a splendid series of comic anecdotes in Appalachia, where each attempt to improve their lives fails. They pay the electric bill but are shocked by faulty wiring; patch the roof with tarpaper but it still leaks; dig the foundation for the glass castle then fill it with garbage; paint half the house but cant find a ladder to finish; buy a canned ham but it rots without refrigeration and breeds maggots; forage for food but poke weed itches and tomato cans explode; go to forage spilled coal but only collect half a bucket; buy an iguana but it freezes to death; wash clothes for the first time in months but they freeze stiff; find a diamond ring but Rose Mary takes it; and so on. I believe the author borrowed this literary technique from Wile E. Coyote.
So much for aesthetic value. Let's turn to the moral value of the book where I find the book fails just as the kids failed in their attempts to act as adults while still kids.
Proust wrote, The true paradises are the paradises we have lost. Walls’s past is not a paradise yet there is still a powerful compulsion by Walls to make it one. So in my mind she must modify Proust. She enlists Dylan Thomas in this effort, and if I interpret the book’s motto correctly, Wall’s believes it was Rex’s promise of a paradise, expressed most vividly by the metaphor of the Glass Castle, and not the actual world that he provided for her, that was the remembered paradise of her youth. Wall’s then runs together the promise with Rose Mary’s claim that there is something good in everyone and that good, no matter how trivial, has magical powers to redeem a person, no matter how evil. Even Hitler has a redeeming feature. Rose Mary’s juvenile philosophy allows the author to redeem her father because he made the promise. It’s a beautiful sentiment; and indicative of the mental gymnastics the author has to perform in order to make the case for her parents.
In contrast, here is another way to think about the book. The Glass Castle is the story of a little girl. She is neglected by her parents, and ignored by her siblings who are busy trying to survive themselves (and in any event they are ill-equipped to raise her). She has to rely on the handouts of neighbors to eat. She grows up unnoticed and unappreciated. She moves to New York City only to have her parents follow her there. She lives with her mom and wracked with drugs stabs her and is sent to a mental hospital upstate. None of her siblings stay in touch with her. Of course this sad story, without redemption or grace, is baby sister Maureen’s.
No blowhard talk by a violent and cruel alcoholic about a glass castle is going to make a paradise out of what happened to Maureen. The author survived; and lucky was the author. Walls could easily have been burned to death at age 3; or suffered from disease caused by malnutrition; or shot herself with Rex’s pistol. Maureen (and poor, forgotten Mary Charleen!) wasn’t so lucky and her life was destroyed by her awful parents. Rex’s claim that because of how the author turned out he must have done something right, is a misleading use of cause and effect. He didnt do anything right, his daughter achieved what she did only because she was lucky.
What whelms me with sadness is the author’s denial of her parent’s real role---she says she went to New York to escape Welch, not to escape her parents; she blames herself for Maureen’s fate, not her parents; Rex is remembered as an exciting father who is the subject of happy toasts after he passes and Maureen’s voice not being part of the toast is not mentioned by our author. If this was a novel, such an obfuscating or unreliable narrator would be understandable, but in a true story there is instructional value in having a clear eyed assessment of what happened. Maureen is a real person who has suffered and is suffering today and there needs to be some accountability for that. And I am saddened to see the author is still helping her parents evade accountability and I feel so sorry for her inability recognize her role in protecting them from realizing their cruelty and destructiveness.
To be fair, perhaps Rose Mary can escape censure because she has about as much sense as a squirrel; but we expect much more from Rex, who “everybody thought was a genius”. It’s unfortunate Jeannette Walls squandered whatever chance writing this book could have afforded her to heal herself. There is still time for Al-Anon.
Walls begins her unbelievable memoir by recounting an adulthood trip to a party in New York City’s Upper East Side when, glancing out her taxi’s window, she spots her mother rooting through the trash. Walls immediately panics and turns back home, worrying first on a professional level that someone will see the two of them together and then on a deeper level that her mother is cold and homeless in the New York winter.
Walls’s subsequent lunch meeting with her mother, Rose Mary, prompts Jeannette to ponder her parents’ voluntary lifestyle and the childhood that she had with such unconventional, erratic role models.
She digs into her history by relating her first memory: “I was on fire.” As a three-year-old, Walls had pulled a stool up to the range to make hot dogs for herself — a common event — and her dress caught the flames. She is rushed to the hospital, which, she comments with remnants of little-girl wonder, “was shiny and clean. . . . I wasn’t used to quiet and order, and I liked it.” Three-year-old Jeannette marvels at the abundance of food, and she admits, “I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.”
But Walls’s stay in the hospital ends abruptly; though the medical staff insists that she is not finished healing, her father scoops her up in his arms and “checks out Rex Walls-style.” Simply put, he runs out of the hospital through the emergency exit for the waiting car, Jeannette still in his arms.
Jeannette’s earliest memories have several such events in common. Her parents call it “doing the skedaddle”: when they are out of rent money; when her mother gives birth to a younger sister; when her father is down on his luck and at the end of his bar tab; when creditors from a previous town appear. They simply pick up and leave, often in the middle of the night, bringing along only the possessions that will fit in whichever run-down car they are driving at the time.
The family never stays in one place for very long, until they move back to Welch, Rex’s hometown in West Virginia. Rex, always one partial to the bottle, begins to drink even more when he realizes that instead of resulting in the adventuresome life he craves, his reckless exploits have landed him in the same dead-end town he had sought to escape as a child.
However, even in the face of such gloom, Walls’s father is a dreamer. He had always dreamed of building a solar-powered “glass castle” for the family, even going so far as to draw up architectural plans. Jeannette and her brother, Brian, measured the ground near their house for a foundation, and after a month of hard digging, the ground was ready. However, the castle never gets off the ground. Because the family cannot afford to pay for trash collection, they begin dumping the trash into the hole. Though Rex promises it is a “temporary measure” until he can hire a truck to take it to the dump, he never does, even rats begin to appear in the home.
Fire and heat reappear as constant themes in Walls’s memories. On one of the few occasions that the family celebrates Christmas, her father becomes incensed with the Catholic teachings. After they are “escorted” from the church, Rex decides to light the family Christmas tree on fire, and he laughs as the family rushes to trample the flames on the living-room floor.
On another occasion, while living at a San Francisco hotel, Walls finds a box of matches and hides in the bathroom, lighting paper and cardboard and then flushing the flames. A few nights later, the family wakes to find the entire hotel on fire. Though there is no connection to her antics of a few days previous, she wonders if the fire is out to get her. Walls says, “I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the kind of knowledge that kept you on your toes.”
When Lori, Jeannette’s older sister, tries to light a fire in the woodstove of their uninsulated shack in Welch, the kerosene causes an explosion that singes her hair and burns her skin. Shortly thereafter, Walls tells of her fascination with her classmate’s house, which has something called a thermostat. Upon making this discovery, Walls remarks,
“I didn’t want to say anything to show how impressed I was, but for many nights afterward, I dreamed that we had a thermostat. . . . I dreamed that all we had to do to fill our house with that warm, clean furnace heat was to move a lever.”
Fire is symbolic of her relationship with her parents. While their love and warmth at times keep her cozy and satisfied, other times their explosive nature expands out of control and threatens Jeannette’s very life.
Lest her readers become thoroughly depressed with such obvious deprivation, Walls also illuminates her account with rays of optimism. One year when her parents’ funds are too low to afford Christmas gifts, her father takes each child aside to choose their own star — or, in Jeannette’s case, Venus — as his gift to them. Later, he tells them about outer space, discussing black holes, light-years, and the special qualities of their new celestial possessions.
Jeannette’s mother is exemplary at finding the good in the bad. “Everyone has something good about them,” Rosemary states. “You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.” Jeannette sarcastically counters by asking what Hitler’s redeeming quality was. “He loved dogs,” Rosemary responds immediately.
Though her story more often inspires pity and incredulity than joy and optimism, Jeannette Walls is a masterful storyteller who does not allow herself to dwell in the negativity of her past. Walls demonstrates throughout her narrative the toughness that she had to develop in order to survive, but at the same time she highlights the optimism shared by her family that was equally as important in her development and success in life.
The strength of Walls’s narrative lies in her ability to completely absorb herself in telling the story, without allowing herself time or space to inject judgment or analysis. When Jeannette is 3, she speaks with a charming simplicity; at 12, she exudes the ebullient tenacity of a middle-schooler; at 20, her unflinching optimism and clear drive for success speak for themselves. Readers are then absorbed in the listening, and oh, what an experience that is. More than just an incredible story, The Glass Castle showcases Jeannette Walls’s clear talent with a pen and her undeniable prowess as a storyteller.
Jeannette Walls currently resides in Culpeper, Virginia. She is also the author of Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip and Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Story.
The first hundred pages of The Glass Castle were amusing. It felt a little bit like some off-the-rocker Griswald family vacation full of mishaps. As the memoir progressed and Wells presented more dimensions to her family, you were struck with the sadness, anger and negligence of it all. For some readers, it probably remained humorous, but for others (me included), it was disgusting. Reviewers have commented feeling sympathetic toward Jeannette’s parents. I would argue that they were smart enough to know what they were up against. They intentionally bucked the system because they could get away with it – and their kids paid for it along the way.
It’s hard to like a book when you feel contempt for some of the main characters. To be fair, Wells’ writing style was gripping and descriptive. She knew how to draw her reader in. I cared about what happened to her and her siblings, and I was relieved to learn that they were okay once grown. That’s indicative of good writing, and I would want to check out more books by Jeannette Wells for this reason.
However, The Glass Castle struck an unsteady chord with me as a parent. It’s almost a guide for what not to do. Perhaps I will save it for when my kids are older and don’t appreciate me. See, kids, how bad it could be?
Truth be told, while reading Walls' book, I kept asking myself,
And there isn't a shred of self-pity to be found: Just a straightforward telling of the narrative, plain and simple.
The horrors the Walls children endured, and the incredible resourcefulness of Walls and her siblings is an incredible testament to the sheer will of the human spirit in dire conditions. You just can't make this kind of stuff up.
Jeannette Walls' memoir is about growing up in abject poverty in
I'm a bit late to the table on this book, my natural aversion to over-hyped bestsellers kept it on the shelf through the period of mania, but I'm very glad I read it. Recommended.
So I ask myself again: Why are so many people, from so many different walks of life, completely captivated by this memoir? Some of the reasons are obviously these: 1) it concerns young children in harms way, and we humans are instinctually motivated to protect them; 2) it tells us a never-ending stream of true-life stories that seem utterly unbelievable, yet we know the person relating them to us is the grown-up person who lived through them, so they must be true; 3) it makes us hope that, somewhere within the text, we will catch the author in some open fabrication that will unravel the possible hoax of it all; and 4) we are compelled to find out how the author was able to succeed in life despite all her early trauma, deprivation and abuse. Perhaps the answer is a mix of all of these, and more.
But there is another reason that has only rarely been suggested here within the now-80-plus reviews on LibraryThing, and the reviews and interviews with the author available elsewhere through the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and journals. I want to give this mere suggestion front-and-center focus.
The idea is this: what keeps us all utterly enthralled is the quiet voice of love, understanding, and forgiveness that permeates the whole memoir. The entire book is told in the first person, as if the writer were living that moment at that time. Thus, when we read about Jeannette as a five-year old, we hear the voice of five-year-old; when we read about Jeannette as a 12-year old, we hear the voice of a 12-year-old; etc. But what we don’t notice is that that young voice has been filtered and transformed by the mature, understanding, and forgiving mind of the grown-up, psychologically balanced, emotionally stable, and personally successful woman who Jeannette Walls has become. Children, no mater how much they are forced by circumstances to grow up quickly into responsible little adults, still do not have the maturity necessary to be nonjudgmental, fully objective, and ever-loving in the face of boldfaced parental abuse, unfairness, and injustice.
That is why I think we were all so utterly drawn into this book and could not put it down. We all long for unconditional love. We all long for our actions to be accepted and not judged by our loved ones. We all long to be who we are and to be loved despite our faults. If we are lucky enough to achieve enduring love in our lifetime, it most certainly comes only with maturity.
I was moved by her ability to relate a childhood that would have crippled most people both physically and certainly psychologically. She does this with care and grace
Having grown up myself around the Appalachian culture, Walls story is a very accurate portrayal of what one can find occurring every day in the nooks and crannies of the mountains. Walls should be proud that she was able to overcome such a harsh childhood.
I highly recommend this book.
But the way these parents treated their children? Unbelievable. Starvation, child endangerment, near prostitution...all so that
That being said - this is a compelling story of the amazing love children have for their parents. No matter how poorly they are treated or neglected - children will hold on to the hope that their parents will change and love them back just as fiercely.
I admire Walls immensely not only for her success in escaping the downward spiral of her parents lives - but for being able to forgive them for what was done to her.
She is a bigger person than I.
As far as memoirs go this book did not move me the way I
The bond between Ms. Walls and her siblings was apparent throughout the book, and I could feel it growing stronger as they began to rely more and more on each other for survival as is often the case in dysfunctional homes.
Ms. Walls love for her parents was evident as well. She could have used this opportunity to trash them, and yet, she did not. From reading this book one gets the sense that she has made peace with her parents, forgiven them for their failures and has comes to terms with accepting them for the imperfect people that they were/are.
I think this book will be an eye-opener for those readers that were blessed enough to have been raised in supportive and stable homes. I would say it is worth reading for anyone that wants to gain a better understanding of the childhood and lifelong effects of growing up in an alcoholic home.
The father had severe alcoholism and the mother sort of drifted through life, painting her artwork and not getting too worried about anything. Neither parent could hold a job for more than a month or so, leaving the family penniless and without food for weeks at a time.
The author, Jeannette, paints a picture of her incredible childhood with touches of humor, sharing the absurdity as well as the heartbreak of living day after day, uncertain of her next meal or her next home.
The father would decide one day that they were moving, pack up the car and off they would go, "skedaddling" to the next town and the next life, actually trying to outrun the bills and the trouble he'd left behind. Without a plan, this family would drive their used cars until they broke down and then they would seek a place they could reside until the next "skedaddle".
The mother seemed in full agreement with the father, she was always ready for another "adventure", no matter how disruptive it was to her children. The mom seemed to just float through life, and tried to instill in her kids that life could always be worse...although many times, it could not have been. Even though she was trained to be a teacher, she would only hold jobs long enough til she grew tired of it, then refused to go back.
The children all seemed to be more responsible than the parents and would try to motivate them to be more like the parents they should be. The parents continued to give excuses why they couldn't be tied down to jobs.
This was just a heartbreaking story, but with touches of humor interspersed in the writing. This author survived an incredible life and now is working for MSNBC. An amazing tale, highly recommended.