The Glass Castle: A Memoir

The Glass Castle is a memoir by Jeannette Walls, mostly detailing her childhood and early teenage years. Even though it is written from Jeannette’s point of view, it is really a memoir of her family. Family dynamics, loyalty and the sheer eccentricity of the Walls family is the main focus of this memoir.

The book opens when the three-year-old Jeannette accidentally sets herself on fire as she boils hot dogs in their trailer park. The Walls parents encouraged their children to be self-sufficient, so letting their three-year-old daughter operate a stove all by herself wasn’t unusual for them. They also moved around a lot, usually when the money ran out and they were behind on rent or had some troubles with the local authority. Three locations play a bigger roles throughout of the book: Battle Mountain, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Welch, West Virginia. There are many more tiny stops before and in between and the “final” destination leads the Walls family to New York City.

Rex Walls was brilliant, always full of ideas and loved his wife and his children. He was also an alcoholic, irresponsible and violent. Rose Mary Walls is an artist, a moody person and a careless parent. But she is also so much more than the three labels I’d slapped on her. They both hated the idea of confinement, authority and oppression (and labeling). They were free spirits, going wherever they want to go and doing whatever they want to do – or they were careless, neglectful and selfish parents. Because real life isn’t either-or, they were both good and bad parents, loving and selfish people.

As Jeannette grows older in the book, her perception and ability to understand gradually changes – especially concerning her father, whom she idolizes as a child. All Walls children were thrown into becoming self-sufficient and it was both fascinating and scary to read about it. Lori, Jeannette, Brian and Maureen look after each other but due to their self-sufficiency (except for Maureen, who was too young when things went downhill), they are used to being their own people.

The thing about The Glass Castle is that it didn’t give me any answers. It did give me a lot of questions to think about. Actually, if there is one answer that I received from the book, it is that I have to accept the fact that there are seldom clear-cut answers in life. It’s easy to say “Oh yeah, life is neither black nor white, there is lots of gray area, blah blah blah” but it’s quite another thing to be so plainly shown just how muddy that middle area is.
Are Rex and Rose Mary’s philosophies about raising children – or their general attitude towards life – problematic? I don’t know. They are both generally open-minded about lots of things and bring up their kids to think broadly and openly.  At the same time they turn a blind eye when their children need them most because ignoring is easier than confronting. They demand to be their own people first, in a shoulder-shrugging, that’s-just-who-I-am kind of way. They are hypocrites, but then we all are. It became impossible for me to judge them, especially because the author herself doesn’t condemn anyone in her book.

In fact, Jeannette Walls’ engaging yet non-judgmental narrative voice is very striking. The Glass Castle isn’t devoid of emotions. Happiness, confusion, anger, guilt, love – they are well woven into the story. But in the end, and all in all, the book isn’t accusatory. Sometimes you can’t just understand certain people, but because they’re family, you accept and love them. Even if that way of loving isn’t conventional. Maybe it has to be different.

The titular Glass Castle is Rex Walls’ perhaps biggest project: a house that is made of glass and which is so self-sufficient that it doesn’t need any outside supplies such as electricity or gas to function. It is a distant and vague dream he promised to his children – a dream that eventually gets cracked over the time until it erodes. There is one very symbolic moment in the book when Jeannette and Brian realize that the Glass Castle isn’t ever going to happen: when they dig a hole for the foundation of the Glass Castle and their father tells them to fill it up with garbage since they can’t afford the trash-collection fee and the trash’s gotta go somewhere. “[A]s Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castle’s foundation slowly filled with garbage.” (p. 190 in mass market paperback edition)

My feelings about this book aren’t coherent but I know that it has made me think and experience. And that I want to read more books like The Glass Castle.

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