Sunday, November 25, 2007

Book Review: The Glass Castle

November 25, 2007

Entertainment Weekly calls this memoir "Nothing short of spectacular"; the back of the book says it is "truly astonishing." Spectacular, astonishing, brilliant, intense, fascinating---I could go on and on. Jeannette Walls today is a regular contributor to MSNBC. She lives in a beautiful home and rubs shoulders with the rich and famous. But for years she avoided speaking about her family, even to her closest friends. Her husband finally got the whole story out of her and urged her to write her memoir. And, wow. What a memoir this is.

Walls's family was incredibly dysfunctional. Her father was brilliant man who embraced learning of all kinds, from physics to history and everything in between. Her mother was a free-spirited artist who believed that children should take care of themselves. Completely. Life for Rex and Rose Mary Walls was all about adventure; life for the four Walls kids was all about survival. Though brilliant, Rex was an alcoholic who constantly lost his jobs and got into trouble with the local law enforcement or the loan sharks. Moving every few months, they lived in absolute dumps or sometimes lived out of their car, if they had one. Occasionally Rex would bring home a few bags of groceries which would be gone in a couple of days. Rose Mary told the kids that food was over-rated and just to look on the bright side of things. Walls' memories of digging through trash cans at school for tossed-out sandwiches would be heartbreaking, except that she tells it all in such a matter-of-fact way.

Ultimately the family heads from the west back to Rex's hometown in West Virginia, where their life rapidly deteriorates. Most folks in the coal-mining town are impoverished, and the Walls are at the absolute bottom of the barrel. Without running water or electricity and usually without food, each family member manages somehow to survive, in spite of being ostracized by the community. The resilience of the four kids is unbelievable, and through absolute grit and determination, they all manage to escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism.

Jeannette Walls is a powerful storyteller. She does not make judgments about her parents but just tells what happened. One can't help but wish warm baths and clean clothes for all the Walls siblings for the rest of the lives. There are two great websites featuring Jeannette Walls. This one is an interview with her; and this one has a video clip of Walls and her mom today.

Having recently read Into the Wild, I have to say that the contrast between Chris McCandless and Jeannette Walls is striking. McCandless was a rich, privileged kid who goes into the wild and dies. Walls was a dirt-poor, hungry, dirty kid who escaped from the wild and survived. And my admiration goes entirely to Walls.

If you read nothing else this year, please read this book.


Hava said...

You linked to this review from a current review, so I had to go check it out. I had honestly never heard of this book before, but that parenting style sounds kind of like the parenting style of Nicholas Sparks.

Did you read my review of "Three Weeks with my Brother" by Nicholas Sparks? His parents were all about having the kids basically just raise themselves, and they too were dirt poor, although the mother did take the time to feed them. She just felt like in everything else (playing, fending for themselves with bullies, dealing with injuries, etc) that they were simply to "buck up" and get on with it.

Nicholas tells several stories of being pretty badly hurt, and having his parents wash the wound off with cold water and throw a band-aid on it. Nicholas said it was a good thing he never broke any bones, because he wasn't sure his parents would have taken him to the hospital even for that. Incredible.

So anyway, I put Glass Castle on hold at the library - it's checked out right now, so it'll be a little bit before I can read it, but I'll be sure to read it and review it. :-)


Rebecca Reid said...

"[It] would be heartbreaking, except that she tells it all in such a matter-of-fact way." That's why I loved this book! I still think it was heartbreaking, but so powerful to see how she survived!