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The Glass Castle: A Memoir Paperback – January 17, 2006
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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."
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Top international reviews
Essentially it is the integrity of the characters in all their waywardness in the cases of the mother and father and the solid endurance of the main protagonist that have left a lasting impression on me.
The wilful neglect of the children is shocking and heart breaking. At the age of three the author receives extensive burns and nearly dies when she is allowed to use a gas hob without any parental supervision. One child does die in infancy, though it is claimed to be of natural causes (I rather doubt that given the neglect described).
In addition to neglect, there is the mental torture ...one child, when in her late teens is so tormented by her mother that she stabs her and ends up spending time in jail.
This is not the sort of book you are likely to "enjoy", but it is certainly worth reading. It is inspiring in so far as the
surviving children come through it all and go on to lead happy and fulfilling adult lives and that is a remarkable achievement.
The book also raises philosophical questions...as to what is good and bad when raising children. For instance did it widen the children's horizons by living in so many different places? Did they in fact learn to be independent due to the neglect...ie was it good for them in some ways?. Can children be truly "happy" in such families? ...Can it be said that despite all the neglect, that underneath it all these parents loved the children? Regarding the latter, the author seems to think they did and I can understand that. But I doubt it.
Yes the parents may have shown occasional kindnesses, but I can't see that these are sufficient to compensate for the overall neglect. I might have had more sympathy for the parents if they'd had no choice...if they had done their best under difficult circumstances, if they had made an effort, but my impression from the book is that all they cared about was themselves and having their freedom to do as they pleased. I'm sorry if that is unfair and obviously I never met them and have never walked in their shoes as it were....but I just couldn't see any love there.
Shocking at times, I found myself feeling awfully frustrated with her parents! I do believe that they love their children in their own way but just have their own warped, weird outlook on life which is actually very damaging and worrying.
It is interesting to read about all of the different places they lived in their life too, you get a real feel for the surroundings and culture of different parts of America. The Appalachian mountains included!
It is an inspiration to me that this lady managed to change her life for the better despite her difficult circumstances.
I’ve seen the film too, but in my opinion he book is better as there are bits that they left out in the film.
The book is well written – 6/10
I wrote a fuller review on my blog - theweeflea
There aren’t many books where you can say that the heroes of the story are also the villains. When I first started reading it, I thought, “oh, so this is a memoir about child abuse” – but then two chapters on, I was thinking, “No, I got it wrong – they’re just bohemian and anti-institution types”. Somehow, she manages to walk this line throughout the book, where you vacillate between thinking her parents are crazy and abusive, or super-intelligent and free-spirited.
Jeannette recounts her remarkable childhood, moving from place to place around America, with her very unconventional parents. Although there are some dramatic and emotional elements she tells it all with journalistic precision, which means that it never feels saccharine or over-dramatic. The writing is elegant and lean, and allows you to feel the emotion as she tells the story. I borrowed this from the library, and then went and bought a copy for myself, because I wanted to study her writing more closely. And then I went and bought a copy as a gift for someone else, because it really is remarkable. I was hooked from the moment I began reading. You should buy it immediately. (Trigger warnings for abuse).
If you enjoy this book give Blackbird: A Childhood Lost by Jennifer Lauck a try, another memoir I couldn't put down, it's equally well written and gripping.
Jeanette Walls tale of a crazy nomadic childhood in poverty is not a misery memoir, instead she tells her tale in the way she experienced it and those of us who didn't grow up with workshy parents in tumble down houses are left to read it with open mouths! Though there are many things that make the reader (and presumably the adult author too) sad about the deprivation of her early years, there is also a lot to be envied. Her childhood was a rollicking adventure, brimful of incredible experiences and it undoubtedly shaped her into the driven woman she became.
The books readability is aided by the very short chapters and I ploughed through it in a couple of days. Look no further for an incredible unputdownable read.
It is a great Reading Group book (our choice this month!) - loads to discuss afterwards - and what an amazing film it would make also. Highly recommended!