I’ve been on a streak of reading memoirs about women with troubled and difficult pasts who have succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. And I use the words wild and imagination with the strongest conviction. Jeanette Walls spent the youngest years of her life running free with wild animals in a number of non-traditional homes like an abandoned bus depot or dilapidated shacks. In fact, her first memory is of cooking at the age of three, her dress catching fire and being carted off to a hospital –topped off when her father decides to check her out of the hospital, “Rex Walls” style.
(Also, a movie featuring Brie Larson and Naomi Watts is coming out this year based on the book. I can’t wait!)
Jeanette Walls’ memoir recounts her tumultuous childhood, focusing on the early years of her life in the American Southwest. Jeanette explores her relationship with her drunkard father in what her responsibility-allergic mother calls an adventure, but to her it likens to hiking a never-ending hill, pushed back by the mud and debris of a father who drags her back into the valley that haunted his youth.
Her childhood is a roller coaster mostly controlled by her father’s ability or inability to earn money for the family. Rex Walls is a talented intellectual who holds a lifelong passion for learning, paired with dreams of grandeur and the desire to never settle. His biggest idea is the plans for the Glass Castle, a family home that would provide the family with every need while keeping in tune with nature. The plans are referenced fairly early in the memoir, but as the Walls encounter more struggles, the Glass Castle is slowly forgotten.
Never holding a job for over a year, he is a boisterous, loud and occasionally obnoxious man. The Walls family runs into several opportunities to improve their life including an inheritance, stable jobs, and an education usually not associated with a low-income family. However, neither of Jeanette’s parents are interested in financial stability or a plentiful life for their four children.
We learn later that Rex has also dealt with a past where abuse and suffering are normalized when the family returns to Rex’s hometown of Welsh, an extremely poor coal town in a valley in West Virginia. While the family struggles to find the basic necessities throughout many years, the drastic shift from the freedoms of Arizona and California are contrasted with the dark days in Welsh rife with sexual abuse and bullying. I felt the most compelling part of Jeanette’s past was the stifling oppression of her situation in Welsh where there was no escape.
Yet, Jeanette still holds a deep connection to her father who still holds a soft spot in her heart. Her relationship with her mother is the one that actually feels more fractured. Rose Mary Walls, an artist, was described as a person who cared more about creating a piece of art that would last much longer than a meal. Jeanette’s older sister connects more to their mother and the responsibilities of caring for a family falls squarely on Jeanette, who resents the responsibility.
In the end of the memoir, emotion tugs at the reader when Jeanette struggles to find a balance with a father that desperately wants to provide for her, but is unable to. Jeanette’s relationship with both her parents throws a unique twist in her successful career as a journalist and editor.
I find her courage in the face of repeated struggle and close bonds with her siblings to be the most enjoyable parts of the memoir. She is a likeable person – often blunt with her parents – but also the only person willing to do so. Above all, her past is a story of escape and freedom from a life that would beat most people into submission.
The Glass Castle is an amazing read from start to finish and I could hardly put the book down. For me, the memoir moved too fast through certain incidents where I would have loved to hear more of Jeanette’s thoughts and feelings rather than the actions occurring, but the pace of the book makes it exciting.