The Glass Castle (audio)

When Jeannette Walls was 3 years old, she was hospitalized and given skin grafts after burning herself making hot dogs while her mother was happily painting in another room. Not long after her parents took her out of the hospital, she was home and hungry and got right back on the chair by the stove to make herself some hot dogs. This is one of the less shocking incidents in The Glass Castle, Walls’s memoir about her childhood and early adulthood.

Walls’s parents are dreamers. Her father, Rex, dreams of taking down the unions, coming up with new and better ways of mining gold, and building a castle made entirely of glass. Her mother, Rosemary, dreams of becoming a great artist. Both of them are intelligent and, by all appearances, talented and bold enough to actually achieve something in their chosen fields. But they lack any sort of discipline, and this lack not only holds them back from achieving their dreams, but also prevents them from giving their children anything approaching a stable, secure life.

Rex was an alcoholic and a gambler; given the opportunity, he would gamble or drink away any money his wife or children earned almost as soon as they earned it. Rosemary, on the other hand, never drank anything stronger than tea. Her drugs of choice were chaos and excitement—or sugar, as her children learned when they found her eating a hidden candy bar when there was not a morsel of food in the house and no money to buy more. Both of the Walls parents lived almost entirely in the present moment, and they seemed to think of nothing much but their own momentary comfort.

The Walls family spent a lot of time in Jeannette’s early years on the road, traveling from one tiny western town to another, “doing the skedaddle” as soon as the situation got hairy because of bill collectors or, in one instance, a shootout involving the Walls children and a neighborhood boy who attempted to rape Jeannette. Wherever they lived, the four Walls children were largely left to fend for themselves and sometimes ended up providing for their parents out of their own meager savings. Their parents impressed upon them the importance of book learning almost from the start, and all four learned to read early. But they learned basic life skills only through hard experience.

As a child, Jeannette bought into her parents’ belief that life should be an adventure, and so the story feels almost like an adventure in the early chapters. Readers can see the magic of having a father give you a star for Christmas instead of a wrapped gift under a tree. And were it not for the parents’ selfishness and general lack of responsibility for their offspring, much of their outlook could be seen as charmingly nonconformist. But even as Walls is able to pick out the sweet moments, when she felt loved and inspired, she does not fail to share the moments of disappointment and fear that came with this life. As she gets older and more aware of how different her life could be, the magical moments get fewer and farther between and the frustration and heartache increase.

One of the most impressive things about this memoir is Walls’s ability to describe the events of her life and her feelings about those happenings without a lot of editiorializing and judgment against her parents. She takes an almost detached approach, merely recording what happened and how she felt about it at the time, with little mention of how she feels now.

What I liked about this approach is that it never feels like Walls has an axe to grind. She’s not trying to get back at her parents for making her life so hard, nor is she trying to make excuses for them. She doesn’t appear to be playing the “poor me” card or trying to win readers’ sympathy for herself. She doesn’t appear to be making a point about the welfare system or the dangers of alcohol. Instead, she seems merely to be trying to own her story, to acknowledge her identity as a woman who had this childhood. As a reader, I was horrified by what I read; the neglect and abuse the Walls children experienced is nothing short of shocking. But I think I would have been less angry if Walls herself had more openly expressed anger. I was infuriated by the situation, not pushed into fury by the author’s own anger.

I must confess, though, that I wonder about the value of these kinds of memoirs for readers. I hate to say I enjoyed this book, because enjoyment is the wrong word, but I was immersed in the story from start to finish. It’s well crafted, interesting, and full of shocks and surprises. And in the end, seeing how Walls and her siblings forge their own paths is outright inspiring. But does my appreciation of this book and books like it arise from a prurient interest in watching a train wreck as it occurs or from a desire to understand others and how others live? Or perhaps the prurient interest is the doorway leading to some form of understanding?

See other review at Compulsive OverreaderA Life in Books, Rebecca Reads, Age 30+…A Lifetime in Books, Necromancy Never Pays, Of Books and Bicycles, and Tales from the Reading Room.

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16 Responses to The Glass Castle (audio)

  1. Iris says:

    This is currently on the top of my TBR-pile. It seems to be a book that leaves an impression with most readers. I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ll be sure to come back and do more than read the first and last paragraph once I finish it (I don’t want to know too much about it, going in).

    • Teresa says:

      Iris, This does leave a strong impression. I hope you “enjoy” it! (In quotes because it’s not a book that gives pleasure exactly.)

  2. Jeane says:

    I was totally engrossed in this book, though like you, I found many parts shocking. I couldn’t imagine how parents could treat their children like that.

  3. Steph says:

    Obviously I’ve seen this book a ton, but I actually never knew what it was about – I don’t think I even knew it was a memoir! I think you raise an interesting question about the role of this kind of writing – sometimes I wonder if it’s meant more as a therapeutic exercise for the author! That said, I could completely see how this would be a really engaging story that would be hard to tear oneself away from; I admit that I’m pretty intrigued myself now!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, I think this was partly a therapeutic exercise for the author. She talks about how she hid her background and was afraid people would dislike her because of how she grew up. And that of course hasn’t turned out to be the case. And as memoirs of this type go, this is a good one. I’m not sorry I read it!

  4. Danielle says:

    I found this very compelling reading as well when I read it when it first came out. It was a sad story indeed and you wonder how she and her siblings ever grew into normal adults.

    • Teresa says:

      Danielle, It is truly remarkable that they grew up to be as successful as they did. It seems like they really supported and helped each other.

  5. Rebecca Reid says:

    Interesting comment on enjoying this book. For me, it was eye-opening to imagine life like this in the modern USA. I have always been rather sheltered, I realize when I read something like this. The amazing thing to me was her lack of bitterness. As you say, the book would not have been powerful if she had been bitter about her life.

    I think this is the perfect kind of memoir. For me, it definitely is about learning about the world, not looking on a rotten childhood, which is how many other memoirs seem to me.

    • Teresa says:

      Alas, Rebecca, I do know of people who live like this, so although it was more extreme than most of the situations I know about, it wasn’t surprising. But yes, I think that this kind of story can have value if it helps people learn, as it did for you.

  6. bookssnob says:

    I really want to read this – I have heard much about it. I wish I had bought the copy I’d seen second hand before I went on my book ban! This is a brilliant review!

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Rachel. It is a particularly good example of this kind of book, so if the topic interests you at all, it’s worth seeking out once you’re off your buying ban.

  7. Jeanne says:

    I wonder if hearing it made your interest seem more prurient to yourself. It was a book I skimmed through pretty fast.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s quite possible, Jeanne. On audio, I couldn’t move quickly through the more troubling incidents. That probably did make it worse.

  8. Sasha says:

    I have been wanting to read this for months now–though yours is actually the first review I’ve read, I just know of the haphazard summary at the back of the book–but the copies stocked in my country are mass market paperbacks. And I’m O.C. enough to wait for the Trade Paperback.

    Aherm. I have really good feelings about this one–can’t wait to get my hands on the “right” copy. :]

    • Teresa says:

      Sasha, I hope you’re able to find a proper trade paperback copy. I had one, but I gave it away when I decided to listen to the audiobook :-( It is very good, as books of this type go.

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