The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle Book Cover

Author: Jeannette Walls
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2005
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir, Autobiography

It is difficult to review and summarize memoirs. In part, this is because the story isn’t invented out of whole cloth. The plot, such as it is, is a person’s life. It is difficult to criticize the truth, and often difficult to relate to someone else’s truth. Jeanette’s story begins at about age 3, with her first memory having been burned in a fire. She was cooking over an open flame, unsupervised by her parents. I hesitate to use the word “absentee” about Rex and Rosemary Walls. They are constant (if chaotic) presences in the lives of their children. What makes this memoir stand out to me amongst many others about similarly awful childhoods is that her parents are so interesting.

I’ll explain. Rex Walls is absolutely an alcoholic. He’s also a certifiable genius. He isn’t as outright abusive as he is self-absorbed and neglectful. He loves his wife and children. Rosemary isn’t an alcoholic, nor is she conventionally abusive either. My guess is that she was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, which gave her a fun and productive streak a mile wide during her good periods, and rendered her completely useless as a mother during her bad ones. The titular “Glass Castle” is one of Rex’s promises to his four children – someday, he’ll build it for them and they’ll all live together in it. He even has elaborate architectural plans drawn up. The plans for the mythical Glass Castle become the prize among their meager possessions.

After years of a nomadic life in the southwest, the family is finally desperate enough to move back in with Rex’s parents in Welch, West Virginia. It is here that the story takes a dark(er) turn, as the children meet their abusive grandparents for the first time and begin to understand why their father left. The story follows Jeanette and her brother and sisters through their tumultuous childhood, culminating in their escape to New York City at the end of their teen years. But are they finally free of their parents?

Fun Fact: Paramount bought the film rights to The Glass Castle, and in March 2013 announced that actress Jennifer Lawrence would play Jeannette Walls. Claire Danes and Mark Ruffalo will play her parents. The film will also be Lawrence’s first producing endeavor.

Bother if: This isn’t the only memoir about an impoverished, neglectful, abusive childhood, but it is one of the best. Part of its charm is Jeanette’s spunkiness and intelligence, and part of it is her father’s desperation to make their lifestyle seem like a grand adventure. He succeeds in large part. Best of all, Jeanette succeeds, despite all odds.

Don’t bother if: If you’re not a fan of memoirs, you can skip this right away. It’s a fairly typical hard-luck origin story, albeit better-written than the grand majority of them. I was charmed and engaged by the Walls family. The story does contain, however, child neglect and injury, emotional and sexual abuse (although the latter is not perpetrated by the parents), and disturbing themes.

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  • I have a hard time with dysfunctional family stories. You make it sound, however, like it could be worth reading if one was in just the right frame of mind. I do own this book, so possibly someday, I may read it.

    • I thought it was really pretty good. Your heart breaks for the family, because they seem like fundamentally good people. That alone set it apart from many stories of its kind.

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