Title: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Release Date: January 9, 2006
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Glass Castle is a gripping story of Jeannette Walls’s astonishing childhood. With their parents unable to hold steady jobs, Walls and her siblings became accustomed to constantly running from bill collectors, living in an unending succession of filthy, unsafe homes, and never knowing from where or when their next meal would come.
Walls begins her unbelievable memoir by recounting an adulthood trip to a party in New York City’s Upper East Side when, glancing out her taxi’s window, she spots her mother rooting through the trash. Walls immediately panics and turns back home, worrying first on a professional level that someone will see the two of them together and then on a deeper level that her mother is cold and homeless in the New York winter.
Walls’s subsequent lunch meeting with her mother, Rosemary, prompts Jeannette to ponder her parents’ voluntary lifestyle and the childhood that she had with such unconventional, erratic role models.
She digs into her history by relating her first memory: “I was on fire.” As a three-year-old, Walls had pulled a stool up to the range to make hot dogs for herself — a common event — and her dress caught the flames. She is rushed to the hospital, which, she comments with remnants of little-girl wonder, “was shiny and clean. . . . I wasn’t used to quiet and order, and I liked it.” Three-year-old Jeannette marvels at the abundance of food, and she admits, “I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.”
But Walls’s stay in the hospital ends abruptly; though the medical staff insists that she is not finished healing, her father scoops her up in his arms and “checks out Rex Walls-style.” Simply put, he runs out of the hospital through the emergency exit for the waiting car, Jeannette still in his arms.
Jeannette’s earliest memories have several such events in common. Her parents call it “doing the skedaddle”: when they are out of rent money; when her mother gives birth to a younger sister; when her father is down on his luck and at the end of his bar tab; when creditors from a previous town appear. They simply pick up and leave, often in the middle of the night, bringing along only the possessions that will fit in whichever run-down car they are driving at the time.
The family never stays in one place for very long, until they move back to Welch, Rex’s hometown in West Virginia. Rex, always one partial to the bottle, begins to drink even more when he realizes that instead of resulting in the adventuresome life he craves, his reckless exploits have landed him in the same dead-end town he had sought to escape as a child.
However, even in the face of such gloom, Walls’s father is a dreamer. He had always dreamed of building a solar-powered “glass castle” for the family, even going so far as to draw up architectural plans. Jeannette and her brother, Brian, measured the ground near their house for a foundation, and after a month of hard digging, the ground was ready. However, the castle never gets off the ground. Because the family cannot afford to pay for trash collection, they begin dumping the trash into the hole. Though Rex promises it is a “temporary measure” until he can hire a truck to take it to the dump, he never does, even rats begin to appear in the home.
Fire and heat reappear as constant themes in Walls’s memories. On one of the few occasions that the family celebrates Christmas, her father becomes incensed with the Catholic teachings. After they are “escorted” from the church, Rex decides to light the family Christmas tree on fire, and he laughs as the family rushes to trample the flames on the living-room floor.
On another occasion, while living at a San Francisco hotel, Walls finds a box of matches and hides in the bathroom, lighting paper and cardboard and then flushing the flames. A few nights later, the family wakes to find the entire hotel on fire. Though there is no connection to her antics of a few days previous, she wonders if the fire is out to get her. Walls says, “I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the kind of knowledge that kept you on your toes.”
When Lori, Jeannette’s older sister, tries to light a fire in the woodstove of their uninsulated shack in Welch, the kerosene causes an explosion that singes her hair and burns her skin. Shortly thereafter, Walls tells of her fascination with her classmate’s house, which has something called a thermostat. Upon making this discovery, Walls remarks,
“I didn’t want to say anything to show how impressed I was, but for many nights afterward, I dreamed that we had a thermostat. . . . I dreamed that all we had to do to fill our house with that warm, clean furnace heat was to move a lever.”
Fire is symbolic of her relationship with her parents. While their love and warmth at times keep her cozy and satisfied, other times their explosive nature expands out of control and threatens Jeannette’s very life.
Lest her readers become thoroughly depressed with such obvious deprivation, Walls also illuminates her account with rays of optimism. One year when her parents’ funds are too low to afford Christmas gifts, her father takes each child aside to choose their own star — or, in Jeannette’s case, Venus — as his gift to them. Later, he tells them about outer space, discussing black holes, light-years, and the special qualities of their new celestial possessions.
Jeannette’s mother is exemplary at finding the good in the bad. “Everyone has something good about them,” Rosemary states. “You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.” Jeannette sarcastically counters by asking what Hitler’s redeeming quality was. “He loved dogs,” Rosemary responds immediately.
Though her story more often inspires pity and incredulity than joy and optimism, Jeannette Walls is a masterful storyteller who does not allow herself to dwell in the negativity of her past. Walls demonstrates throughout her narrative the toughness that she had to develop in order to survive, but at the same time she highlights the optimism shared by her family that was equally as important in her development and success in life.
The strength of Walls’s narrative lies in her ability to completely absorb herself in telling the story, without allowing herself time or space to inject judgment or analysis. When Jeannette is 3, she speaks with a charming simplicity; at 12, she exudes the ebullient tenacity of a middle-schooler; at 20, her unflinching optimism and clear drive for success speak for themselves. Readers are then absorbed in the listening, and oh, what an experience that is. More than just an incredible story, The Glass Castle showcases Jeannette Walls’s clear talent with a pen and her undeniable prowess as a storyteller.
Jeannette Walls currently resides in Culpeper, Virginia. She is also the author of Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip and Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Story.
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