Jeanette Walls is an award-winning author who proves the old axiom that miserable childhoods help make great writers. And to say that her childhood was miserable is a bit of an understatement. That part of her life is described in her memoir, The Glass Castle, which won multiple awards, including a Christopher Award and A Books For A Better Life Award and was on the New York Times Best Seller List for more than three years. And in my humble opinion, it deserves all the accolades it has received.
As is true with many memoirs, it takes the form of a novel-length series of flashbacks. It opens with an adult Jeanette riding in a taxi to an event when she encounters her homeless mother sorting through trash cans. Completely taken aback by seeing her mother in the street despite the fact that she knows about her situation, Jeanette is in a panic. Though hoping at first that her mother doesn’t see her and try to speak to her, she decides to approach her and offer assistance–assistance that her mother, who seems quite content with her situation, turns down. This raises many questions. Why is her mother homeless? Why is Jeanette not doing more about it? What could have happened to cause her to be so ashamed of her own mother that she avoids her in the street?
These questions are answered through the memories that make up the book, the first of which is of her setting herself on fire while cooking hot dogs as a three-year-old. They are living in a trailer park in Arizona and, as her parents, both Bohemian at best and quite possibly criminally insane at worst, have no jobs or insurance to pay the hospital bill. Nor do they have any socially acceptable answers to the questions about why they were allowing a three-year-old to use the stove. So they do the logical thing: they sneak her out and run away. As is true of pretty much every place they live throughout the children’s lives, they end up sneaking out under cover of night to avoid rent collectors.
They move to a new town, where her father gets a job as an electrician (he’s a talented and intelligent man who just can’t seem to handle living within normal social constructs) that he, of course, loses, after which they end up travelling across the country to their father’s hometown in West Virginia. It quickly becomes apparent why Mr. Walls left in the first place as well as why he is such a quirky person.
What makes the book truly poignant is following Jeanette as she slowly realizes that her parents aren’t like most. She actually is aware of it early on, but as she matures and sees how other families work, she becomes more and more acutely attuned to just what she’s missing out on living in a household with parents who often don’t work and who don’t provide many of the basic necessities of life that even the poorest of their neighbors can expect. But it’s more than just grinding poverty and unemployment that separates Jeanette’s mom and dad from your average folks. They just don’t view the world and their roles in it in an orthodox way. The reality is that, in many ways, the children in the Walls family are more parental than the actual parents are. And for Jeanette, a thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive young woman, that is hard to deal with, so it becomes her goal in life to get away.
I don’t want to give too much away, but the fact that this is a memoir by a celebrated author probably discloses the ending anyway. And knowing the outcome doesn’t change the beautiful experience of reading this well-crafted book. In a way, it makes it easier to make it through some of the more harrowing scenes because, despite all they go through, we know she makes it out in the end.
I highly recommend this book. It has it all. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s sad, it’s maddening. And it is wonderfully written. It should definitely be moved to the top of your to-be-read list.