The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Published by Virago
Published in 2005
I read this book for book club and purchased this book myself. I was not paid for this review.
When a well-meaning parent who has done nothing more outrageous than apply some necessary discipline gets “I HATE you! You're ruining my life!!” thrown at them by their offspring it must really really sting. I'm sure that part of the parenting experience (of which I have not partaken as yet!) is to develop the ability to shake this kind of thing off but still. It's got to hurt. Especially when you happen across a memoir such as this about parents that really were, in many ways, ruining their kids' lives – yet these kids seem to raise far fewer protests in this book than the average teenager would in a calendar month.
When I first started thinking about this book I was in two minds as to whether this memoir displays the immense resilience of children or the worrying enmeshment that often happens within dysfunctional families. When you've been dragged from pillar to post by your emotionally immature and responsibility-shirking mother and father, experienced neglect, witnessed violence and endured the most abject poverty, to come out as well-adjusted and normal as Jeannette Walls is no mean feat. From the outside, it seems that despite the occasional rays of warmth and love that provide light relief throughout what is undeniably a very grim tale, the behaviour of her parents is unforgivable. You have to wonder how on earth she has come through all of this and been able to write such a balanced view of her life. In the end, however, I decided that although the enmeshment is definitely there, it would be doing this book an immense injustice to focus on that rather than on the resilience of Jeannette and her siblings.
The second in a family of four kids, Jeannette was daughter to Rex and Rose Mary – both highly intelligent people who simply did not fit within regular society. Rex dreamed of being an entrepreneur, of building his glass castle – a solar heated mansion for his family, of striking it rich in the gold mines but his addiction to alcohol as well as his near complete failure to apply himself left those dreams in the dust. Rose Mary was a prolific artist who just could not see the point of domestic chores and the hard work of raising four children when she could be working on her next painting. During Jeannette's childhood they lived a nomadic existence, moving from place to place across the desert until they finally, incomprehensibly, settled down in her father's loathed hometown of Welch – a damp and by all accounts fairly dire small town in West Virginia in the vice-like grip of joblessness and poverty. This is where they remain for the majority of Jeannette's adolescence and where, I feel, the magic slowly drains out of her view of her parents, especially her father whom she had always idolised.
In an interview about this book, Jeannette points out that although some people may see the concept of the glass castle as just another of her father's drunken promises that was inevitably broken, you can also choose to see it as a hope for the future. It's all a matter of perspective. Despite this viewpoint being incredibly hopeful and uplifting, personally I can't buy into it. Her story made me very angry, frustrated me beyond belief and broke my heart. I despised her parents for their selfishness and the pain they had visited upon their own children – the best part of the whole story in my view was the fact that she and two of her siblings, Lori and Brian, banded together to help each other escape from their destitution and build a better life for themselves in New York. For me, the hopeful thing is that these kids got out and went on to flourish proving that nobody is necessarily defined by their circumstances or their past if they are given a chance to break free of it. I suspect that everyone who reads this will have their own reaction to it based on their life experiences which is what makes this book so worthy of picking up and reading.
This book probably wouldn't be a good choice if you're looking for for something light. It is heavy-going and for some people it will touch a raw nerve but above all it is an unforgettable tale of the strength of the human spirit. It's a book that will stay with me for a very long time.