Several people have asked me what I think of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I wasn't able to answer that question at the time since I was too busy "feeling" the story. This is definitely a book that can generate a lot of emotion.
The Glass Castle is an account of Walls's childhood growing up with her three siblings under the "care" of two very eccentric and self-involved parents. At the best of times Ms. Walls's parents are simply free-spirited and neglectful. Unfortunately, these parents are not just benignly eccentric; they place their children in dangerous situations, use them for their own selfish ends, withhold food and steal money from them.
The Glass Castle opens with three-year old Jeannette standing on a stool in front of a stove boiling herself a hot dog while her mother sings and paints pictures in the next room. A three-year old. Unsupervised. Cooking. Hmmm ... this can't lead anywhere good. The next thing you know this tiny tot is screaming as her dress goes up in flames. Jeannette spends six weeks in the hospital getting skin grafts to her torso. The nurses question her about her family and home life, but to little Jeannette nothing seems amiss or unusual about her family or her life. This is not an unusual response since most children accept their families the way they are and don't know that life would or should be any different than what they experience.
Jeannette's parents, Rose Mary and Rex, are first presented to us through the eyes of a young child. Young Jeannette sees her parents as heroic and bigger than life. Dad looms large as an inventor who is constantly reaching for the big pay-off so he can provide for his family. Mom is an artist constantly looking on the positive side and claiming that every negative twist and turn of their lives is an adventure. Through the eyes of a child these parents are simply different and the child trusts them. Doing the "skedaddle" (a euphemism for running from the law or from bill collectors) and sleeping under the stars in cardboard boxes is an adventure. Scavenging for food and water is a sign of self-sufficiency. The adult reader is given enough cues to know that all is not right with this family, yet along with young Jeannette we hope for them and admire their ability to stick together.
Our view of the world changes as we age and, likewise, Jeannette begins to see her parents through more realistic eyes as the story progresses. These adults who could once generate complete trust by asking their children, "Don't I always take care of you?" are beginning to be seen as the faulty humans they are. The days of hunger and homelessness and the promises that never materialize are beginning to wear on these children; yet they still hope. In typical childlike sincerity, the Walls children attempt to help their parents change. Jeannette is extremely hopeful that if she just tries hard enough, things will improve. She recognizes the effect her father's drinking has on the entire family, so she asks her father for his sobriety as her tenth birthday present. She creates a budget and offers to handle the family money. She tries to improve the looks of the family shack by painting it yellow. This is one tough and hopeful child.
One of the ironies of The Glass Castle is the truth of the pithy sayings tossed off by Jeannette's parents over the years. These sayings may have been offered as wisdom, but at their core they were a way for these neglectful parents to assuage their own guilt. Jeannette's father says to her, "If you don't want to sink, learn how to swim." Her mother says, in a variety of ways, that suffering creates strength and beauty: "It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives it its beauty." All true, but not an excuse for neglect. However, Jeannette and her siblings do learn to "swim" and their struggles do bring a beauty and strength to their lives.
Jeannette's father has, for many years, promised to build a home for his family -- a glass castle. He does indeed draw up blueprints and modifies them on occasion. Jeannette believes her father's promise to build this enchanting structure and it is a source of hope over the years. Her trust and hope leads Jeannette to recruit her brother to begin digging the foundation in order to help get this wonderful project going. Despite this assistance from the children, the glass castle remains just a plan and a hope as the foundation hole sits ignored. It is a turning point in Jeannette's understanding when this hole, that should have been the foundation for the glass castle, is slowly filled with the family's garbage. Can anyone say metaphor? As the trash piles up, Jeannette can no longer pretend that her parents are other than who they are and there is the harsh realization that if she wants a different life she will need to create that life through her own initiative.
The Glass Castle is a wonderfully representative title as it describes both a father's beautiful dreams for and promises to his children as well as an indication of how fragile and impractical those dreams and promises can be. The author shows an amazing lack of bitterness toward her parents and I admire the strength she displayed in creating the life she wanted to live. Ms. Walls has indeed created beauty from her struggle. An overall good, and moving, read.
Also reviewed at:
Everyday Reading (Janssen)
Dog Ear Diary (Jeane)