- 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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
The timing of the story was fast and well paced. It seemed like a never-ending roller coaster ride for Jeannette and her siblings. I can hardly believe that any parent would want their child to live in that manner. But that's a whole other discussion. This book did open up my eyes to a different world, one thankfully that I know nothing about.
Cons: Simply put, Rex and Rose Mary Walls are the worst part of this story. I get that they wanted to be minimalist and they wanted their children to be self sufficient, but they really took that to the far extreme. They are kids after all. The circumstances that their kids lived in and had to deal with was beyond believable and sad. But we needed to see the whole picture to understand the Walls kids' story. Sadly both parents had their own messed up issues, which in turn trickled down and really influenced how they chose to live their lives.
Final Thoughts: Thank goodness for book club! Without book club, I would have never had the pleasure to read this book. I couldn't get this book from the library in a timely manner so I ended up purchasing it. I was nervous, but I'm glad that I did. It was totally worth it. Jeannette and her siblings survived their parents and became their own people, successful people (for the most part). They are an excellent representation of how not to become a product of your environment. I recommend this book to everyone. It's an interesting story and it's written in a way that's appealing and easy to digest.
The life style that they were having was depending on the situation, some day they live with comfort but most of the time they wouldn’t have anything to eat and live with discomfort. The family didn’t have much and didn’t want much because Jeanette’s mom didn’t work and her dad change job regularly or got fired because of his attitude. They move from places to places to avoid the bill collectors, lived in the car, sleeping outside in the dessert. Move from one state to another, looking for a new ‘adventure’. Jeanette and her siblings tried to make it best out of it in any ways, but when time goes by thing got harder, Jeanette’s parents didn’t take any effort to make their life better instead things got worse, they stopped caring about the children and thought more about themselves. So the only Jeanette and her siblings can think out of is leave the parents and starts a new life in new place, far away from them and as result they have accomplished they goal and have a better life except Maureen the youngest, who struggle with drugs and got stuck. As well as Rex and Rose Mary, they become homeless because that was the way they wanted to be, later on Rex passed away.
The book totally make me sad, anger and mixed emotion. Especially I just became a mom.
For instant, how can you raised your child like the way Jeanette’s parents did. Most of the time I just felt like they were so selfish and didn’t really care about the children. Also is so hard to imagine that this can be in real life, is just heartbreaking. I really admire Jeanette and her siblings how strong, dependent and go-getter they are with everything they’ve been through.
I really enjoyed reading the book, the detail of the story was really good. The rating that I would give for this inspiring and fascinating book would be a nine to ten. When I started reading the book, it caught me the attention from the beginning until the end. It was more interesting to me when I knew it was based on true story and also you can learn something out of this book, no matter where you come from, rich or poor, how you were raised, if you want to achieve your goal and become somebody in life, you can do it. I recommend this book to everybody.