Year Published : 2005
Genre/Tags : Coming-of-Age, Family, Poverty, Memoir, Nonfiction
Mood : Mainly bleak/heavy.
Edition : Kindle eBook
# of Pages : 288 Pages (Paperback)
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel getting into this one, having rarely read non-fiction memoirs. Turns out that the writing style employed here flows similarly to fiction, very approachable and easy to engage with. Even if the content is heavy and uncomfortable.
The story starts with our meeting Jeannette when she’s little more than a toddler. She has one slightly older sibling and two younger ones. Her family is highly unconventional. A group of eccentric drifters who believe in utter self-sufficiency and exist on the absolute fringes of society. Her mother is a very self-involved artist. Her father is a creative dreamer who struggles with addiction. They both make often shocking decisions that constantly put their four little children at risk and in destitute conditions.
The parents are very realized characters, written with a complex blend of affection and profound disappointment on the part of the narrater. At some earlier sections I had an inkling of sympathy for the parents, given the harshness of their lifestyle and lack of support. The reader is meant to think of them as multi-layered, very flawed but very human individuals. It’s hard empathizing with them the way the heroine does, as so much of the neglect faced by their children is nearly unforgivable.
Many sections are startling in general. Some examples-
- The parents refuse to lock doors or windows and strangers come traipsing into their home.
- At a young age, the kids fear being assaulted and gather weapons or gadgets to defend themselves and each other from pedophiles and bullies.
- Their father, believing himself to be in tune with nature and all its creatures, climbs into wild animal enclosures at a local zoo and encourages his kids to pet them.
- At one point the kids live in a house so fallen into disrepair that they risk electrocution by navigating the kitchen.
These are just a few of the outrageous things that occur. The descriptions of poverty are also very vivid, the way the struggles of the desperately poor in Appalachia is conveyed is shocking to read about.
I liked this book, and to my understanding it has quite favorable ratings on Goodreads and elsewhere and some level of popularity. But it’s hard to explain what is appealing about it.
My review up to this point probably makes this reading experience seem darkly dysfunctional. But Jeannette Walls’s writing is majorly unique in a sense of taking these events and infusing them with a unique perspective that isn’t gloom-filled. There are even several moments containing a sort of dark humor. The descriptions are concise but often written in beautiful or enlivening ways.
She is very in-tune with telling this story of her childhood and the childish viewpoint is endearing and genuine. The story unfurls like a series of vignettes, with each scene being a few pages and having a strong closing line. The pace is brisk due to this approach. The focus is so clear and close during the main character’s childhood and teen years.
And that brings me to the criticisms portion of things. Toward the end of the book, as the heroine edges closer to adulthood- she comes closer to a world with greater opportunities. But at that point the focus becomes more distant, more telling instead of showing as moments fly by too fast. I also felt like her parents were so detailed but her siblings, while very likable, were noticeably less vibrantly characterized.
This book is under 300 pages so understandably it would have to be substantially longer to make room for everything, but there would certainly have been something to be gained from showing with deeper clarity how her life improved after all of those hardships. Totally open to reading a sequel. As a stand-alone, this book is still well done and provides a lot to talk and think about.
Overall Rating – 9/10
Why You Should Try It – Terrific writing. Sheds light on an important topic that is both thought-provoking and sparks discussion. This memoir is told like a story to get lost in. The main character and her parents are brought to life with searing honesty. The descriptions of poverty are very realistic, and the heroine’s perspective draws in the reader and fosters understanding.
Criticisms – Less so a criticism than a warning, this is a heavy book that can be upsetting to read. Mainly I felt anger for what the characters endured. Jeannette’s siblings needed more character development, and the ending could have been a bit longer to add some much-needed depth to important closing events.The Glass Castle: A Memoir (Amazon Link, Click To View This Book on Amazon.)
Have you read this book or are interested in reading it? Have any questions? Please feel free to share your thoughts, I read and appreciate all your likes and comments. Thanks so much for reading!