Powerful Pages: ‘The Glass Castle’ is a memoir of magic and misery by Jeannette Walls
Walls’ unconventional re-telling of her upbringing emphasizes how family is forever
According to a New York Times review of “The Glass Castle,” memoirs are “our modern fairy tales, the harrowing fables of the Brothers Grimm reimagined from the perspective of the plucky child who has, against all odds, evaded the fate of being chopped up, cooked and served to the family for dinner.” Luckily, author Jeannette Walls was never served for dinner, but her memoir “The Glass Castle” is surely an interesting mix of magic and misery.
“The Glass Castle” follows the life of Walls and her three siblings, Lori, Brian and Maureen, as they attempt to navigate poverty-stricken life and the delusions of their parents. Despite copious hardships and obstacles in Walls’ life, she is able to overcome the barriers of adversity and create a nook of success and opportunity in the city of New York.
The title is symbolic of Walls and her siblings’ relationship with their father. A castle of fantasy, magic and luxury — everything their lives were not. The transparency of the glass acts as another embracing metaphor: Walls was able to see through her father’s lies and loose promises of a better life and a false implication that her parents were suited to raise children.
Walls’ father, Rex, a major character in this book, is charismatic, loving, intelligent and seemingly the perfect father — until he starts in on the bottle. Rex Walls suffers from the demons of alcoholism, or as Walls says, “a little bit of a drinking situation.” He is incapable of keeping a steady job for an array of implausible reasons and disappears for days at a time, leaving the kids stranded with their mother, Rose Mary Walls. Rose Mary is a free-spirited artist at heart, and a carefree parent. She believes parents worry too much about their kids and that, “suffering when you’re young is good for you, it immunizes your body and soul.”
Walls’ memoir combines a series of misfortunate events as the family constantly relocates from one dusty mining town to another, living in sad shacks that are usually infested with critters. At the ripe age of three years old, Walls suffers third-degree burns from head to toe as she was cooking herself dinner. In another instance, Walls is flung from the car onto the bank of a railroad. She waits for hours until her family returns for her all while suffering from a gushing nose bleed and a pebble punctured face.
Over the years, the kids attend various public schools and have an off-kilter homeschooling experience, as their parents believed there was more to learn from the world than inside a classroom. Despite inconsistencies in their home life, the kids are able to create a life for themselves away from their parents. Walls’ eldest sibling, Lori, moves to New York City at the age of 17. Quickly after, Walls and her brother Brian follow. They work odd jobs to make ends meet and Walls even attends Barnard University and graduates with honors. Her education at Barnard catapulted her into a career at The New York Magazine as a reporter, and later as a columnist writer for MSNBC.
Upon the memoirs’ release in March of 2005, the book quickly rose to The New York Times bestseller list and received the Alex Award in 2006. Then, in 2008, the book was nominated for the Lincoln Award, and in 2009 it was accredited with the ALA Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners award. In 2017, filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton adapted the book into a movie, which is now available for streaming on Netflix or Prime Video.
Walls’ comical and captivating writing style is sure to keep readers interested. Her ability to write out memories as though they happened yesterday is impressive; the way she tells her story with mentions of shame and weariness is applaudable and admirable. No matter what the circumstances are, she never denies her family. As you read along, you notice the memoir is a mix of magic and misery that will surely leave you feeling all sorts of emotions.
The love-hate relationship with her father will leave you feeling angry, yet oddly attached to his presence as her father. There are moments where Walls’ writing pulls you in only to leave you stunned at the sheer reality of her life.
“The Glass Castle” remains a worthwhile read as it proves that any amount of deprivation can be overcome with determination and a little sense of humility.