Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Author: Jeannette Walls
Publisher: Scribner, 2006
Source: Personal copy
Read for: Alex Awards Challenge
Jeannette's parents were intelligent, resourceful, and restless. From her earliest memories, she recalls moving from place to place in whichever rickety incarnation of the family car was still running. However, as Jeannette and her siblings grow older, the enchantment of their adventurous life begins to fade as they realize how poor -- and hungry -- they are. They spend the next few years trying to pull each other out of their parents' lifestyle.
All I knew of The Glass Castle before picking it up was that it was about a family that chose to be homeless. That in and of itself probably wouldn't have been enough to pique my interest; however, every single person I knew of that had read the book absolutely raved about it. I'm grateful for the rave reviews, because without them I never would have experienced this riveting book.
Walls' personal experience in and of itself is fascinating. Her existence of moving from shack to shack in the desert, eventually ending up in a molding, festering structure in West Virginia with no heat is an interesting story on its own. However, the real stars in The Glass Castle are the fascinating members of Jeannette Walls' family. Each person was captivating, intelligent, creative and unique, including her flawed parents. Despite my frustration with them throughout most of the book, it was impossible to hate them. Jeannette's mother was certainly a selfish woman, hating to go to work despite her teaching credentials (and a shortage of teachers in the areas in which she lived) because she felt that it stifled her creativity and because she was tired of taking care of others instead of people taking care of her. (I wanted to shake her and say, 'Hello woman, you had children and there are responsibilities associated with that'). I was unbelieving when she stashed food away while her children went hungry. However, at the same time, she was clearly creative and intelligent.
Jeannette's father was my favorite character in the book, despite the fact that he was the root of most of the family's troubles. Clearly an intelligent man with interesting ideas and a deep love for his children, he was unable to hold down a job or stay long in one place due to his rampant alcoholism, which he attempted to beat multiple times unsuccessfully. The pathos of his continued query to his children, "Has your dad ever let you down?" was heartbreaking, because it was so clear that he had, but it was also so clear that he hated and blamed himself for it. I'm not condoning the hell he put his family through, but I felt that Walls was outstanding at keeping his character well-rounded and objective, despite the ordeals she suffered through his mistakes.
The other aspect of The Glass Castle that truly impressed me was the ability of the Walls children (with one tragic exception) to overcome their difficult childhoods and succeed at their goals in life. Despite the fact that Jeannette didn't have enough food to eat or enough clothing to keep her warm, she worked and saved to send her sister to New York City with the hopes that her sister could take her away someday. She had her goal of becoming a journalist, and she was absolutely tenacious in achieving it.
While Walls is amazingly objective in her character descriptions despite the obvious emotional baggage that comes with them, she leaves nothing to the imagination in her detailed descriptions of her family's hunger, poverty, and decrepit living conditions. Her excellent writing depicts the horrible situation without accusation toward her parents but with no holds barred.
The Glass Castle is at times a difficult read, but the overall message is one of transcending difficulties. Despite the obvious privations of the Walls children's existence, their parents' choices are complex and objectively depicted. I think any reader will gain something from reading The Glass Castle.
Warnings: Language, mild sensuality, violence, disturbing themes