- Watch a video clip of author Jeannette Walls talking about the origins of her bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle.
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The Glass Castle: A Memoir Paperback – January 17, 2006
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Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town -- and the family -- Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
Q: How long did it take you to write The Glass Castle and what was that process like?
A: Writing about myself, and about intensely personal and potentially embarrassing experiences, was unlike anything I’d done before. Over the last 25 years, I wrote many versions of this memoir -- sometimes pounding out 220 pages in a single weekend. But I always threw out the pages. At one point I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn't work either.
When I was finally ready, I wrote it entirely on the weekends, getting to my desk by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and continuing until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I wrote the first draft in about six weeks -- but then I spent three or four years rewriting it. My husband, John Taylor, who is also a writer, observed all this approvingly and quoted John Fowles, who said that a book should be like a child: conceived in passion and reared with care.
Q: How did you decide to follow The Glass Castle with Half Broke Horses?
A: It was completely at the suggestion of readers. So many people kept saying the next book should be about my mother. Readers understood my father's recklessness because they understood alcoholism, but Mom was a mystery to them. Why, they would ask, would someone with the resources to lead a normal life choose the existence that she did?
I would tell them a little bit about my mother’s childhood. She not only knew that she could survive without indoor plumbing, but that was the ideal period of her life, a time that she tries to recreate. I think that for memoir readers, it's not about a freak show– they’re just looking to understand people and get into a life that’s not their own. I thought, let me give it a shot, let me ask Mom. And she was all for it. But she kept insisting that the book should really be about her mother. At first I resisted because my grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, died when I was eight years old, more than 40 years ago. But I have a very vivid memory of this tough, leathery woman; she sang, she danced, she shot guns, she’d play honky tonk piano. I was always captivated by her. Lily had told such compelling stories—I was stunned by the number of anecdotes, and that Mom knew so much detail about them. Half Broke Horses is a compilation of family stories, stitched together with gaps filled in. They're the sort of tales that pretty much everyone has heard from their parents or grandparents. I realized that in telling Lily's story, I could also explain Mom's.
Q: Why did you decide to write Half Broke Horses in the first person, and how much of this "true-life novel" is fiction?
A: I set out to write a biography of Lily, but sometimes books take on a life of their own. I told it in first person because I wanted to capture Lily’s voice. I’m a lot like my grandmother, so it came easily to me. I planned to go back and change it from first person to third person and put in qualifiers so the book would be historically accurate, but when I showed it to my agent and publisher, they both said to leave it as it is. By doing that, I crossed the line from nonfiction into fiction. But when I call it fiction it’s not because I tarted it up and tried to embellish things, but wanted to make it more readable, fluid, and immediate. I was trying to get as close to the truth as I could.
Q: How has your relationship with your mother changed in recent years?
A: Several years ago, the abandoned building on New York’s Lower East Side where Mom had been squatting for more than a decade caught fire and she was back on the streets again at age 72. I begged her to come live with me. She said Virginia was too boring, and besides, she's not a freeloader. I told her we could really use help with the horses, and she said she'd be right there. I get along great with Mom now. She's a hoot. She's always upbeat, and has a very different take on life than most people. She's a lot of fun to be around -- as long as you're not looking for her to take care of you. She doesn’t live in the house with us-- I have not reached that level of understanding and compassion-- but in an outbuilding about a hundred yards away. Mom is great with the animals, loves to sing and dance and ride horses, and is still painting like a fiend.
Q: What do you hope readers will gain from reading your books?
A:Since writing The Glass Castle, so many people have said to me, "Oh, you’re so strong and you’re so resilient, and I couldn’t do what you did." That’s very flattering, but it’s nonsense. Of course they’re as strong as I am. I just had the great fortune of having been tested. If we look at our ancestry, we all come from tough roots. And one of the ways to discover our toughness and our resiliency is to look back at where we come from. I hope people who read The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses will come away with that. You know, "Gosh, I come from hearty stock. Maybe I’m tougher than I realize."
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Freelance writer Walls doesn't pull her punches. She opens her memoir by describing looking out the window of her taxi, wondering if she's "overdressed for the evening" and spotting her mother on the sidewalk, "rooting through a Dumpster." Walls's parents—just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book—were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn't conventionalize either of them. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs and had "a little bit of a drinking situation," as her mother put it. With a fantastic storytelling knack, Walls describes her artist mom's great gift for rationalizing. Apartment walls so thin they heard all their neighbors? What a bonus—they'd "pick up a little Spanish without even studying." Why feed their pets? They'd be helping them "by not allowing them to become dependent." While Walls's father's version of Christmas presents—walking each child into the Arizona desert at night and letting each one claim a star—was delightful, he wasn't so dear when he stole the kids' hard-earned savings to go on a bender. The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn't show. Buck-toothed Jeannette even tried making her own braces when she heard what orthodontia cost. One by one, each child escaped to New York City. Still, it wasn't long before their parents appeared on their doorsteps. "Why not?" Mom said. "Being homeless is an adventure."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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."
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 the plus side, the prose is far from difficult to read, and has good flow. It has a surprisingly upbeat feel to the writing in spite of the subject matter, which is of 4 small children being raised by extremely negligent and sometimes abusive parents. The dad is an alcoholic, with delusions of grandeur and is possibly bipolar. The mom is more atypical in her psychoses. She seems cold-heartedly selfish to the point of disbelief. She is a narcissistic hoarder who will not willingly part with anything, even selling an unused property in Phoenix to help keep her kids from starving. The mom actually has a lot of material wealth through inheritance, but she and her husband squander all liquid assets quickly and refuses to part with anything else. The mom gains weight while not providing food for her kids. At one point the kids find hidden candy bars that she was keeping to herself. This is while she is sending her kids to school with no lunches and they are eating partially consumed food out of trash cans. Jeannette admits she was closer to her father, so maybe that is why he comes off a little more sympathetic than the mom. At least he seems to have moments of true feeling for his kids, though his behavior is often equally outrageous (coming close to acting as a pimp for his daughter out at one point). This family was extremely unfortunate to have not one, but two extremely dysfunctional parents. There is a particularly moving scene when the oldest daughter gets glasses that made me get a little teary-eyed and especially angry towards the selfish parents. I really did enjoy this book overall, and feel it did express the exasperation and disbelief that accompanies having a family member (or two) with mental illness.
The book's weakest point is that the stories don't always ring true. How does Jeannette remember so much detail from when she was three? Were there ATMs in the 70's? Why is Jeannette not more bitter towards her parents? How has this bad upbringing affected her negatively as well as positively? Also, some more detail is wanted to fill in some of the gaps in the stories. The youngest daughter is unable to live a functional life. This is not explored very much. None of the girl children went on to have children of their own. Jeannette eventually goes to a prestigious college but glosses over how it was financed. There is supposedly a wealthy uncle out there (mom's brother) but he is only briefly even mentioned. The family never approaches him for help though they mooch off of other, less affluent family. Also, though the novel is lighthearted, this minimizes the horror that should shine through in the story more. Sometimes Jeannette comes across as glib in how she interprets these awful memories from her childhood.
Anyways, I recommend reading this book as it is an interesting portrayal of an interesting life. It could use more depth, but there is something to be said for such a novel not being a total pity party too.