on November 13, 2005
I grew up in Welch, WV and was acquainted with Jeanette and Brian(Lori was older and Maureen was younger). I can attest that her harrowing account of growing up with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother in the coalfields of WV was as she says. This was a compelling read, all the more so, because it was about people and places I knew so well. As I read, I was filled with sorrow and shame because I was one of those people who didn't want to have close association with them because they were so different from me. I try to asuage my guilt by telling myself I saw things from a child's maturity level. I wish I could apologize and find myself wondering what would have happened if I had befriended Jeanette. She could have enriched my like tremendously. For those of you who doubt things could not have happened like it was written, don't. I knew it and I saw it, and to a degree, lived it. And as tragic as it was, it was true.
on February 27, 2005
First, "The Glass Castle" is a real page turner - - I couldn't put it down and finished it in about four hours - - a record for me!
It's probably the most thoughtful and sensitive memoir I can ever remember reading - - told with such grace, kindness and fabulous sense of humor.
It's probably the best account ever written of a dysfunctional family -- and it must have taken Walls so much courage to put pen to paper and recount the details of her rather bizarre childhood - - which although it's like none other and is so dramatic - - any reader will relate to it. Readers will find bits and pieces of their own parents in Rex and Rose Mary Walls.
Her journey across the country, ending up in a poor mining town in West Virginia and then finally in New York City, is a fascinating tale of survival.
Her zest for life, even when eating margarine and sugar and bundled in a cardboard box with sweaters, coats and huddling with her pets, is unbelievably beautiful - - and motivating.
If I could give a book ten stars, it would be "The Glass Castle."
on December 14, 2005
Jeannette Wall's trek, as depicted in "Glass Castle", recalls Dante's
journey through Hell and eventual ascenscion to Paradise. The comparison may seem risibly over-dramatic, but just as Dante had to go through the experience of the Netherworlds before he could be led to Heaven, so, too, is Jeannette's eventual triumph the FRUIT of a childhood filled with poverty and, what some would call, parental neglect or even abuse.
In the opening section about Jeannette's early childhood, sort of the outer rungs of hell, we are introduced to the author's quirky family. Her father, Rex, is a brainy underachiever who cannot keep a job and has a bit of a "drinking situation".
The mother is an eccentric artist who cannot be bothered too much
by mundane tasks- you know, like cooking or cleaning the house. The children, all extremely bright, are often underfed and left to fend for themselves. However, if the parents have failings, they also have redeeming qualities. The children are immersed in an environment that values art, music, intellectual pursuits, freedom and self-sufficiency and spurns racism and all forms of bourgeois superficiality. Above all, the reader never doubts that Rex and his wife truly love the children. One gets the feeling throughout that Jeanette never doubts that either.
In any case, the early years are bittersweet. If there is squalor and hunger there is also humor and magic. Most of all, there is hope. The family frequently moves and, although that is frustrating, it also provided the background for a myth: that the next town would provide prosperity.
But then to Welch they did go! And, it is in this West Virginia town where her father grew up,the "Nation's Coal Bin", that Jeannette and the rest of the family descend into the lower regions of hell. All the problems are exacerbated. The father, having returned to the place he said he never would, drinks with abandon and applies more and more of the family's slim resources toward his habit. Jeanette resorts to scaveging trash barrels for sustenance and is humiliated for her tattered clothing. There is not water in the house for bathing and no heat in Winter. Swallowed by the appalachian mountains with only the two-lane US 52 out, you feel stuck. Even the pilgrim parents are unable to muster the strength to break the gravity of this place. With this immobility came the final destruction of the myth (that the family would move somewhere else and find prosperity) and, as a consequence, the destruction of hope. However, it is in this darkness that Jeannette finds her calling. She becomes a reporter for the "Maroon Wave", the Welch High School student newspaper. The rest of the book details how her dream to become a "high falutin" journalist led her to New York City and her current incarnation. Maybe not Paradiso, but close enough considering her formative years.
A number of components conflate to push Jeannette towards a succeful resolution. Certainly the positive legacy of her parents: culture, books, self-sufficiency, etc. But also the dire situation gave her a sense of urgency and the focus that comes with it: She had nothing to lose. She was lucky enough to have discovered early on a career path and did not have the leisure to ruminate ENDLESSLY on it.. This latter often brings self-doubts that paralyze youth. Unlike so many memoirs about unhappy childhoods, the author never plays the John Bradshaw card by irately denouncing her parents, nor does she try to facilely excuse them. Life is more complex than that and she understand that syzygys cannot be tampered with, lest you destroy the whole. You cant take eggs out of the cake.
On a personal note, I grew up in Welch, went to Welch High School and knew Jeannette (though not very well) who was two grades behind me. I have not seen her since High School. For those reviewers who expressed doubts about the authenticity of her story, I can tell you that at least the Welch part of the story rings true to my memory.
I was grateful that the chapters are short in this disturbing memoir, because I could only take in a little at a time. It's difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional household than the one in which Walls grew up. What sets her book apart is the distinctive voice in which she narrates that dysfunction, and her growing awareness that she's entitled to a decent life.
We meet the fiesty Jeannette as a toddler, badly burned while cooking hot dogs on a stove for herself. No, she wasn't defying her mother's orders. She was simply taking care of herself in a household where both parents thumbed their noses at such simple conventions as regular meals, sound shelter, decent clothing, running hot water and protection from sexual predators. On one thing, though, they didn't scrimp: the children were taught to read at an early age. I'm convinced that held the key to their survival. Thanks to public libraries, Jeannette read the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie series before she entered school. It must have helped normalize the survivalist lifestyle that her parents adopted.
The difference is that it wasn't necessary. Rex, her father, was when sober an accomplished electrician and science maven. Her mother, Rose Mary, had a college degree but found teaching, like motherhood, an imposition on her life as an artist. The three older children--Lori, Jeannette and Bryan--functioned as a family within the family. The youngest, Maureen, grew dependent on the kindess of strangers and eventually set out on her own.
This is a uniquely American story that wanders all over the landscape from California and Arizona to West Virginia and New York. Although we see the cruelty with which these neglected chilidren are treated, we also see the people who help them and their own protection of their family. As Jeannette views it, the worst possible thing would be separation from her siblings, and I'm inclined to agree with her. Certainly, this book tests my assumption that children get their values from their parents. The Walls children formed theirs in opposition to their parents' in many ways, but they also managed to hang onto the dogged independence and sense of wonder that they admired in Mom and Dad.
I hope this book will enter the list of child survival stories that in my mind includes Tobias Wolfe's "Duke of Deception" and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." Certainly I would recommend it for readers everywhere who are convinced they were deprived.
on March 16, 2005
"My parents, Rose Mary and Rex Walls, and their wedding day - 1956".
There it is. A photo of a young couple, in love, flush with promise. The bride looking shy at the camera. The groom, square jawed and filled with good humor. It's stunning to think that this handsome, newly married couple, would live their lives in squalor, alcoholism and dreams. This picture is very much part of the story of Jeannette Walls and her family, as it sets the tone on the very first page of this wonderful, heartbreaking memoir.
Jeannette's sisters Lori, Maureen and brother Brian, endured a childhood that could have been torn out of the history pages citing the Great Depression. It's hard to believe that these were the 1960's and 1970's in America. Starvation, bad hygiene, and lack of personal safety was an everyday habit in the Walls home - or homes - since they moved from town to town. The kid's upbringing was almost literally, either sink or swim. Much like the wind blown Joshua Tree they saw by the side of the road during one of their family "skadaddles", the kids grew against the force, became tough, and learned survivial despite the adversities.
Both parents were incredibly bright and talented beings. Sadly, they had big schemes on which they could never follow through. Rex Walls was a mathematician who came from a squalor home in West Virginia, and Rose Mary was a prolific artist and teacher who was raised in an upper middle class family out west. What seemed to bond them was an adamant need to spurn the norms of society. This resulted in an inability to stay at the same job for long. They'd lose their homes, and inevitably shack up in their car or any broken down house they could find. This meant the children suffered. They'd constantly be uprooted, and taken out of school. With no money for everyday items, they'd find food and clothes in dumpsters. School children or other family members would abuse them, physically or sexually. Father, a raging drunk, drank up all the money they made. In one period of time, while living in a small home that could be described as a shack, the parents refused to lock their doors, which invited wanderers to come in and out during the night making the children open targets for various perversions.
All long range plans they devined would either die out or be scratched, such as the building of a glass castle in which Rex had drawn up meticulous architectual plans. The aforementioned ramshackled home they lived in came with a backyard where Rex and his kids began to dig a hole for the foundation of this little palace. Sadly, the job was left abandoned. More of a ditch than a foundation, it was ultimately turned into their own landfill when they didn't have tax money for municiple garbage removal. It's quite a metaphor for their lives - dreams left abandoned for garbage. Yet, despite all the trouble and strife, one theme remains consistant: their love for each other was strong. The family, kids especially, stood by each other through all the bad times.
The parents remained stubborn in clinging to poverty, deeming it poetic and noble, turning down any means of charity, even from their own children. For instance, when the kids had grown and found their way to Manhattan to start anew, the parents followed them, finding shelter in their cramped apartments. Despite the incessant pleas of their children to stay with them, they declined, opting to go it alone, ultimately setting up house in an abandoned building, embracing what we would call utter despair, as a one great big wonderful adventure.
The stories unfold with a pure voice, no judgement or bitterness clouds Walls' telling of her family. Each horrible, enraging moment is given a morsel of wonder, such as Rex gazing up at the stars one Christmas, and giving Jeanette the planet Venus as a present since monetary gifts were impossible. In such a remembrance, and many others told between the frighening scenes, Walls makes it clear that her folks were free souls who shared their love in strange ways.
This book will give you chills, and it will also make you think about homelessness and the unique stories these souls carry. Much praise should be given to Walls and her siblings, for having walked through fire, and coming out alive.
on March 11, 2005
Jeannette Walls is familiar as a face and voice for MSNBC.com. Her husband is writer John Taylor. Her parents were non conventional and non-conforming, and she was often left to take care for herself.
Through the book I kept looking for bitterness or residual shame just as the author often had to rummage for food in a dumpster but she is so contented and the book is her memoir of thriving and letting go of negative feelings. Her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls and their four children had a bizarre existence, but Jeanette is testament to survival and functional achievement regardless of what type of spoon you're born with in your mouth. The spoon in her mouth may have been plastic but she turned her life into gold.
on March 22, 2005
Perhaps it was a fierce intelligence that lifted Jeannette Walls out of the well of despair into which her "parents" were forever dipping her (an apt metaphor considering her first swimming lesson). I put quotes around the word parents in the last sentence because, in this riveting memoir, it is the children who do the actual parenting. Young Jeannette, eager to get to school in the morning, would frst have to drag her mother out of bed and send her off to school as well. Mom, you see, was a teacher -- a teacher who didn't care to go to work, even if it meant that her children would not eat for days on end. She was, she said, an artist. When confronted, Mom would whine, suggesting her young children find work themselves. Almost immediately, they do. Jeannette, especially, displays an unerring ambition, and the reader wants to applaud as we see her turning toward a full belief in her abilities as both parent to her parents and then as a writer, which she understands immediately will be her ticket to respectability and, possibly, riches.
During the book (I couldn't put it down for a minute), there were several times I wanted to slap both parents, intensely feeling the pure disgust the children had to hide. I imagine fear of the unknown, of being taken away and put into foster homes, made hiding that disgust imperative. Coming clean here, however, Ms. Walls brilliantly succeeds in illuminating that which makes her father and mother quite special, apart from the normal loyalty blindly afforded one's family. Both parents are obviously bright, though lacking even a glimmer of responsibility. It is clear that the children have inherited this intelligence but . . . will they survive on this alone? Can they? Every setback becomes an invitation for Dad to climb back into the bottle and for Mom, obssessed with observing and recording the world around her, to be guilted into returning to teaching, a job she hates . . . Because it's a job. The most heart-wrenching part of this book for me was, oddly enough, a scene where a young Jeannette, possessing only two pair of threadbare pants, colors her skin with matching magic markers to simulate the "patches" the family could not afford. We are talking bone-crushing poverty here. A passage where her father takes her to a bar and uses his young daughter as bait for a man he intends to beat at pool -- allowing the man to take the young girl upstairs after he's fleeced him out of $80, placed Dad beyond the pale of redemption for me. And I kept waiting for Jeannette to feel the same way. Being a streetsmart survivor who can handle anyting isn't enough. This is a child we're talking about. It's one horror after another. Yet, through the tenacity of the children and the creativity of their parents, we know they will somehow be all right. In fact, we already know at the beginning that Jeannette will do well for herself in life. This fact, however, does not stop us from rooting for these kids the whole way, binding the reader to them as they slowly break from those who would betray them, while still loving them, and find their own adult lives elsewhere (New York City), where we know they can do nothing but improve their lives.
One after another, Jeannette and her siblings move to Manhattan and, through hard work, immediately attain a measure of the domestic security that was denied them from the time they were born. Jeannette, in a section that reads almost as if she is embarrassed to be recognized for her talent and intelligence, receives an Ivy League scholarship and advances quickly in Manhattan, eventually chronicling the social lives of the rich and famous from her Park Avenue apartment. Park Avenue! What a transition from the damp, moldy confines of a broken down up-hollow shack in West Virginia.
However, Mom and Dad miss the comfort of child labor. Having only themselves to rely upon has apparently caused them to realize their limitations and dependence upon their own children. They do not intend to let their little breadwinners get fully away from them.
These characters are indelible. I did not want the book to end. In fact, I found the ending rather abrupt with several unanswered questions. What becomes of the fragile Maureen? What becomes of the land in Texas? Overall, though, this memoir is a rich, satisfying read and a testament to the spirit people like Jeannette Walls and her siblings use to somehow elevate themselves above the dark side of their heritage. Going along for the ride, we find ourselves elevated as well.
The author describes her fascinating childhood in which her family moves around the country, following her father's dreams, staying ahead of law enforcement and bill collectors, and living the family's carefree attitude. While her father's dreams are what sustains the family for many years, slowly the four children become disillusioned as their father continually fails to provide all of the things he promises them. The father's inability to hold down a job and stay sober forces the family to live in destitution, and while the mother is continually writing and painting, this does not put food on the table. The four children learn to fend for themselves, take care of each other, and determine what is really important in their lives.
Quote: "As Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castle's foundation slowly filled with garbage."
This was a really excellent memoir, which raised excellent questions about family, prioritization, dreams, reality, and the power of perseverance to overcome whatever challenges a person faces. The author relates her inner struggle when she wants desperately to believe in her father's big dreams, while having to scrounge in trash cans to find enough food. Although it was a bit slow in the beginning, things picked up rapidly. The book moved quickly, particularly because it is organized into short chapters. I thought the most significant portions related to the siblings holding together while they were growing up and making the most of difficult circumstances.
on January 8, 2006
When your children complain about how they suffered, don't rely: just give them a copy of this book and tell them to come and see you when they're finished. Jeannette Walls tells her story of a childhood spent being dragged around the country as her father does the "skedaddle" to avoid creditors and while her mother refuses to face his contining slide into alcoholism and the family's ever descending circumstances. The children understand that they are living at the bottom of the food chain, often living with no heat or indoor plumbing, but are powerless to change things until one by one they graduate from high school and simply leave. This book is an absolute must read. One of my top ten of 2005. Beautifully written and compelling.
on May 21, 2008
"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who seems to be mentally ill. Walls begins the book by explaining what has prompted her to write about her family: after she has "made it" and become a successful writer living in New York, she comes across her mother picking trash out of a dumpster and, in shame, slinks down in her taxi seat and pretends not to see or know her. Later, Walls confronts her mother, asking what she is supposed to tell people about her parents, and her mother replies, "Just tell the truth. That's simple enough."
Of course, "The Glass Castle" is anything but simple, as Walls attempts to come to terms with her upbringing. The first third of the memoir deals with her young childhood on the west coast, as her parents live as nomads, moving frequently between desert towns, always seeking the next adventure. Walls' mother is the key figure we meet here: an artist and a writer, she seems to live in her own world and doesn't express much concern in the practical realities of raising her children. In a key passage, Walls' mother takes the kids with her to give them art lessons, as she paints and studies the Joshua tree. Walls tells her mother of her plan to dig up the tree, replant it, and protect it so it can go straight. Walls' mother admonishes her, "You'd be destroying what makes it special. It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives its beauty." This appears to be Walls' mother's philosophy of life - looking for the next struggle - as the family willingly gives up its nice residence in Phoenix that Walls' mother had inherited from her family to move to the father's home town - a depressed coal town in West Virginia.
The family's time in West Virginia makes up the next third of the story and depicts a depressed life in a depressed town. It is in West Virginia where the family seems to drift apart, particularly Walls' father, who up to this point, had been worshipped and revered by his daughter. Like Walls' mom, her dad has a lot of imagination; while he takes odd jobs that never last long, his real dream is to strike it rich with one of his inventions. He promises, once he has found his gold, that he is going to build a "glass castle" - his most special project - a great big house for the family to live in. Once in West Virginia, Walls and her brother figure they will make the best of the situation, and they spend a month digging a hole in the ground to serve as the foundation for the glass castle. But because the family can't pay for trash collection, their father instructs them instead to use the hole for the family's garbage. Although she has always been her father's defender, Walls grows disillusioned with her father, eventually telling him he will never build the glass castle.
Determined not to end up like her parents, Walls moves to New York, where the last third of the book transpires. It is here that Walls "makes it," graduating from college, gaining employment as a writer, marrying a rich husband, and settling into a Park Avenue apartment. Interestingly, while Walls has rejected her parents' lifestyle, it is now their turn to reject hers. Her father refuses to visit the Park Avenue apartment, while her mother, after visiting the apartment, asks Walls, "Where are the values I raised you with?" At this point, it is a mystery what values Walls actually possesses. By crafting the memoir around stories of her childhood, we as readers are often troubled, not just because of the content of the stories but because the stories don't provide much in the way of reflection or introspection. It is, in fact, unclear what Walls actually does value - will she continue to identify success with the material trappings of her "normal" life in New York, or will she ultimately reject the conventional life, as her parents did? Without more reflection from Walls, particularly in this concluding section of the book, readers are left to their own interpretation of "the truth" about her parents - are they just a drunk father and a lazy mother, or is there something more to it?
The "Glass Castle" is an addicting page-turner that should captivate any reader. However, without this reflection and introspection from Walls about her childhood, the book misses an opportunity to make a more lasting impact on readers and ultimately fails to reach the level of a work like "Angela's Ashes." In the end, it is up to readers to make up their own minds about "the truth" of Walls' parents and her upbringing and what it all means. I chose to discount some of her parents' flaws and instead read this book as an homage to her parents. To me, the key passage in the book is when Walls visits a classmate's home in West Virginia and sees the empty walls in the house (in stark contrast to her own home, which is cluttered with paintings and books and decorations) and rejects the notion that her classmate's father, passed out on the couch, bares any resemblance to her own father. After Walls recounts the story to her family, her mother replies that she should show compassion for her classmate because not everybody has "all the advantages you kids do." Although the statement is ironic on its face, as the family fights over the crumbs of a chocolate bar, the distinction is clear: Walls' family may not provide her with much in the way of tangible goods, but they give her things that are more lasting - a belief in herself, a passion for reading and writing, an appreciation for things a lot of us take for granted, and most of all love. In the end, it was not important whether her parents actually built her a glass castle. It was that they gave her the idea of a glass castle. By overcoming her shame for her parents and writing this memoir, Walls seems to recognize this truth about her parents - that, like the Joshua tree, there was beauty in their struggle.