Jeanette Walls’ memoir evokes many emotions, not the least of which is anger. Anger at her parents for the way they treated and raised their children; anger at the extended family for their lack of intervention; and anger at a society that managed to always turn a blind eye to a situation that could not have been easy to ignore.
Oddly, though, Walls doesn’t write with anger. Her love for her parents resonates throughout the book. She credits them with giving her a love for literature and art, for being resilient, and for being able to take care of herself.
In The Glass Castle, Jeanette, her sisters, and her brother grow up in a truly extraordinary way. And I use the word extraordinary deliberately. The book starts off describing one of Walls’ earliest memories—boiling a hot dog at the age of 3 and having her dress catch on fire. You know right then and there that her childhood memories are going to be quite different from my own.
I daresay that they are probably quite different even from someone who had a stereotypical bad childhood, such as coming from a broken home or living with an abusive parent. In Walls’ story, the family is very much intact—they are simply quite insanely dysfunctional.
As I mentioned in my I Dreamed of Africa review, memoirs are revealing for what they tell us, but also for what they omit. For instance, although she writes this as a look-how-well-we-turned-out-despite-our-horrific-upbringing story, you get the sense that the younger sister has truly been lost in all of this. She didn't have the strength of the group to draw from as Jeanette, her brother, and her other sister did. Also, her older sister did not seem to give this book her blessing--even though her mother seemed to be okay with it!
This book made me realize how much we take for granted--to always be fed and warm as a child. (Thank you, Mom and Dad!) It reminded me of Angela's Ashes in that way. Their upbringing has to have had unbelievable lasting effects on each of those children. I noticed that Jeanette and her sister do not have children and the brother just has a daughter.
After reading the book and imagining all of the times that those children unnecessarily went hungry, a quote from the grown brother comes back to me. He says, “You know, it’s not that hard to put food on the table, if that’s what you set your mind to do.”
I was enthralled by this book from the very beginning. I was going to re-read this for one of my book clubs, and I found that I didn’t need to. The memories shared in the book haunt me still.
For more of Jeanette Walls' perspective on her childhood, check out this Gothamist interview.