Wednesday, August 02, 2006


 The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls, Simon and Schuster, 2005, 288 pp

I read this memoir for a book club discussion. I was prepared to dislike it because of certain reviews I had read, but it was really quite good. (That will teach me to listen to critics.) It reminded me of The Color of Water, by James McBride.

Jeanette's parents were highly flawed people. Her mother was in a constant state of rebellion against rules, schedules and domesticity. She is a painter, though was never successful. The father was a dreamer, very intelligent, but also in rebellion against authority of any kind, so he could never hold a job. He was also a steadily worsening alcoholic.

So they lived in poverty, went without food, drove broken down cars and finally landed in the father's hometown; a depressed coal mining town in a West Virginia holler. As far as providing food, shelter and material things, they were complete failures as parents. But they raised their four children to be self-sufficient, fearless and to find fun in imagination and adventure.

The kids had to take care of each other, find food however they could, and protect themselves from other kids and bad adults. Since they were all taught to read and shown plenty of natural and scientific phenomena by their father, they were able to use their smarts to escape in their teens. Their parents actually did love them and believe in them which gave them an underlying self-esteem that carried them through.

At least, that is the way Walls presents it in her book. She is not bitter or recriminatory towards her parents. She clearly loves them both. I found myself routing for the kids. I don't think it is right to let children go hungry and leave them in harm's way, but these kids were not sickly, they recovered quickly from accidents and figured out ways to survive. They did not consider themselves to be victims. All but the youngest are successful in their professions.

I was left with lots of thoughts about over-protection vs neglect, about direct abuse vs abuse by neglect, about the various ways to live. The parental Walls ended up homeless in New York City and clearly preferred to live that way. The father's alcoholism did him in and is the thing Jeanette says she would have changed if she could have.

A very thought provoking read.

1 comment:

  1. I also read this book with hesitation. After reading James Frey's memoir I wasn't ready to tackle another heady novel. As soon as I started I was drawn into this book and could not put it down. It was a real page turner and it has been awhile since I have read a book that good. She is a excellent writer and I applaud success. I don't know how her parents could have raised their children in such deplorable conditions. The father may have come from a poor family, but the mother's family had money and the childrens maternal grandmother certainly tried to make their life easier. But only for such a short time. It appears the 3 older siblings are leaving normal happy lives. Unfortunatley, the youngest child is suffering from her parents neglect.