Friday, January 30, 2009

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

(also reviewed by Emily)

Summary: Freelance writer Walls doesn't pull her punches. She opens her memoir by describing looking out the window of her taxi, wondering if she's "overdressed for the evening" and spotting her mother on the sidewalk, "rooting through a Dumpster." Walls's parents—just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book—were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn't conventionalize either of them. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs and had "a little bit of a drinking situation," as her mother put it. With a fantastic storytelling knack, Walls describes her artist mom's great gift for rationalizing. Apartment walls so thin they heard all their neighbors? What a bonus—they'd "pick up a little Spanish without even studying." Why feed their pets? They'd be helping them "by not allowing them to become dependent." While Walls's father's version of Christmas presents—walking each child into the Arizona desert at night and letting each one claim a star—was delightful, he wasn't so dear when he stole the kids' hard-earned savings to go on a bender. The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn't show. Buck-toothed Jeannette even tried making her own braces when she heard what orthodontia cost. One by one, each child escaped to New York City. Still, it wasn't long before their parents appeared on their doorsteps. "Why not?" Mom said. "Being homeless is an adventure."

My Review: While I can't say that this was an enjoyable read, it was strangely addicting. I found myself staying up very late to read "just one more chapter". I also had to continually remind myself that this was a nonfiction book, an memoir of one eccentric childhood, as it's not an account that you would wish to be true for any child. If it had been fiction I would most certainly have had to put it down as it seemed that sooner or later one of the children would be killed by the neglectfulness of their parents. You get the bonus with this nonfiction of knowing that the author's life turned out well against all odds.

Jeannette Walls at no time plays the resentful victim in her tale. Instead she tells her story with love and compassion for her neglectful parents. As a young child she has the same admiration for her parents as all children do, especially for her dad whom she feels incredibly close to. There were points in this story that I even felt a bit of pity for these parents. In her teens she begins to see her mother as selfish and comes to the realization that her dad will never remain sober long enough to keep his promises. At this point she loses faith in her father but gains confidence in her ability to save herself. Jeannette (as well as her brother and sisters) had to grow up very fast but in doing so she grew up strong and noble.

I am in awe of the courage this book must have taken to write. In doing so Jeannette must have had to relive some pretty traumatic childhood memories that I imagine she had previously buried. She weaves an incredibly emotional story that will have the reader giggling one moment and on the verge of tears the next. This story is not an account of childhood neglect and border-line abuse, but rather a lesson in the moral "life is what you make of it".

My Rating: 4.5 Stars This was a hard one for me to rate. It is an amazing, well-written memoir that probably deserves a 5 star rating but the subject matter is so incredibly hard (emotionally) to read that I couldn't bring myself to rate it at the very top.

If I could sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A well-written, inspiring story of an unimaginable childhood filled with extreme highs and lows.

3 comments:

CurtisandMindy said...

A friend of mine read this and really liked it as well.

Sweet Em said...

This was my book club "assignment" in December but I was going to be out of town so I didn't pick it up. Everyone raved about it and I'm trying to track down a copy now...I can't wait.

Melissa said...

I'm not done with this yet and I find myself pondering Wall's childhood as I go about my day and feeling more appreciative for things like heat, electricity and running water.

There was a part where the kids haven't eaten anything all day and catch their mother sneaking a candy bar that was truly heartbreaking, yet, for the most part, at least Wall's early childhood, is filled with excitement, adventure and wonder.

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