The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

by Richa Gupta

The Glass Castle is an intriguing memoir written from the viewpoint of Jeanette Walls—an introspective, adventurous and highly interesting character. Highlighting her struggle to overcome the trauma of her past of poverty, this memoir focuses on Jeanette’s transition from destitution to the riches of upper middle class, and the undercurrents with her haphazard, artist mother (Rose Mary Walls) and father (Rex Walls)—who seem to be desperate to depart from social conventions and lead disorderly lives.

The story narrates Jeanette’s life from the age of three—from the time she had severely burnt herself when making hot dogs because of her parents’ belief that she was old enough to play with fire. During Jeanette’s stay in the hospital, her father whisks her away despite the nurses’ protests, since he spurns the concepts of modern medicine. Insignificant as they may seem, these incidents mark the beginning of the disorganized, peripatetic life that is experienced by Jeanette and her three siblings (Brian, Maureen, Lori).

The Glass Castle is a chronicle of frightful experiences that the four children are expected to treat as thrilling and glorious—from hasty, dangerous getaways to constant shifts between mining towns due to financial issues. Unornamented and almost deceptively simple, Jeanette’s writing style immaculately describes the turbulence of her life under negligent and irresponsible parents, as well as her opinion of it as a wonderful, unforgettable adventure. The tumult of their lives primarily arose from the mindsets of their parents—Rex was an ingenious, brilliant inventor whose drinking spells led him to threats, crime and dishonesty; Rose Mary was a mentally unstable woman who despised the ambiance of domesticity, and strove to embrace the free and independent will intrinsic in her nature.

The title—The Glass Castle—is hence a flawless summation of the many broken, fragile promises that had been made to Jeanette by her parents, particularly her father, who would perpetually ask his daughter—“have I ever let you down?” With the strength and endurance of a glass castle, this memoir exhibits the impact these many unfulfilled promises have on the lives and personalities of a young, adaptable and ambitious girl. I really liked the following quote—“as Brian and I watched, the hole for The Glass Castle's foundation slowly filled with garbage”—since it acts as a perfect metaphor for the indigence that emerged from oaths as shaky and unreliable as the fortitude of a building made of glass.

I found Jeanette Walls's journey from the destitution of mining towns to the grandeur of New York City a truly intriguing read, and I honestly have to admire the courage that must have went into penning this remarkable, outlandish novel. Although Walls’s life almost resembles a fairy tale in its nomadic components, heights of danger and dysfunctional family life, certain aspects of her novel are very familiar, and even more touching. Developing interesting contrasts in the Walls’ life, The Glass Castle describes the atmosphere of fear, hatred and abuse mingled with music, humor, arts and intellectual diversions—thereby painting a bizarre yet fascinating picture of the life of Jeanette Walls.

Left to fend for herself in an unfriendly world, Jeanette recounts a life that can be rather painful to read at first, given the agony and many privations she was forced to endure at the hands of a family that was too remiss and unmindful to take proper care of her.

Particular scenes jump out at the reader—Rex using her daughter as bait for a man he intends to defeat at a game, as well as Jeanette’s reception of a prestigious scholarship to enter the realm of domestic security and abandon the migratory, dangerous life she had led. Finally relinquishing the dark, frightening aspect of her heritage, but still not severing ties with parents whose love for her she had never doubted, Jeanette is a character who has left an indelible effect on my mind—due her thirst to uplift herself from the poverty that held her back, as well as her overall likable, admirable personality.

And somehow, despite the slipshod upbringing she experiences due to Rex and Rose Mary Walls, Jeanette still somehow manages to portray them in a positive light—an example that stuck out for me was Rex’s promising Jeanette the planet Venus for her birthday, since monetary gifts were impossible because of their poor financial conditions. Rex and Rose Mary love their children—they just have strange ways of showing their affection.

Nonetheless, this lax depiction of fondness affects their children in one too many ways—a plight which we readers are constantly subjected to. However, Jeanette’s tone is unbiased and levelheaded—she exhibits no anger or rancor towards her parents or the circumstances she had been unfortunately dragged into. All the same, we taste her anger or her disgust, due to the power of her voice, smoothness of narration and her overwhelmingly amazing story. Some parts of the memoir were rather slow, but the short chapters took care of that, and I found myself unable to put down the book.

The Glass Castle opened up the world to me in many ways—it made me realize the fresh, unconventional lives some people lead, and how most of us are blissfully unaware of them and the countless hardships they endure. Jeanette and her three siblings went through truly tempestuous and painful times, but they emerged alive and still in one piece. Their unwavering resolve is evidence of the strength humanity can bear in the looming face of adversity. The Glass Castle really put my life into perspective—and I definitely recommend this excellent memoir to anyone and everyone. I absolutely loved reading it, and I can tell that it will stay with me for a long time. 

-- Richa Gupta is a Siblíní Blog Correspondent.