Staff Pick: The Glass Castle



The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls

(Simon & Schuster Trade)

When I plucked this book from the shelves of my favorite bookstore a few months ago, I suppose I did so simply because of the title. The Glass Castle. It conjured up childhood images of Cinderella finally meeting her prince. It was full of promise. Must be an uplifting tale, I'd decided as I made my way to the registers.

I was wrong, and right.

Jeannette Walls' memoir is possibly one of the most heart-wrenching books I've ever read. The book follows the Walls family from one coast to the other, from bad to worse, from Jeannette's childhood to her life today as a successful writer. But what a journey.

Rex and Rose Mary Walls are smart, innovative parents. She's an artist and teacher (when she's working). He's a dreamer with grand plans to one day build his family a gorgeous glass castle in the California desert. (Hence the title.) But daddy drinks. A lot. And mom is an emotional child who takes to her bed when things get tough, which is most of the time, leaving the Walls' three kids, Jeannette, Lori, and Brian, to fend for themselves. When the money runs out — and it always does — the family packs what it can and runs off in the night (a move known to the family as "the skedaddle'').

But Rex has an amazing ability to turn each of these wretched instances into an adventure. And the kids are enamored of his optimistic world-view.

From town to town, rental to rental, the kids are sent to school in rags, and steal food from the school cafeteria, surreptitiously gobbling up the leftover lunches of their classmates in the safety of locked bathroom stalls. Yes, they are ashamed, but the joy of having food to eat greatly outweighs the alternative. The awe the Walls kids once held for their eccentric, exciting parents gives way to disgust and shame. They live in constant fear that someone will find out where, and how, they live.

Eventually, the family finds itself in Welch, West Virginia, the very town Rex escaped after a less than ideal childhood of his own. It's here things for the Walls family truly fall apart. The kids, now teens, are subject to both physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their paternal grandparents. They live as squatters in a ramshackle home destined to be condemned at any moment. At times there is electricity, but more often, there's not. There is no running water, and the entire family uses a bucket in the middle of a sinking kitchen floor as a toilet. Outside the door of the home is the town's garbage dump.

It's here, when things become so incredibly unbearable, that the three children begin to plan their escape. And they do. One by one, the three children, scrimping and saving, make their way out of the squalor and to New York City. And the reader breathes a sigh of relief. It's over.

But, it's not. Fast forward a few years, and Jeannette Walls finds herself looking out the window of a Manhattan taxi, only to see her mother, dressed in rags, digging through a trash can. Rex and Rose Mary have followed the children to New York, and have given themselves over to a life of homelessness. Wells must then make the tough decision to either help her family, or leave them to the life they've ultimately chosen.

From chapter to chapter, Jeannette Walls tells one horrific tale after another, and yet manages to complete the entire memoir without even a hint of a "pity me" tone. It's an incredible tale made all the more so by the brilliant way Walls places the magic spell her father weaved over the family onto the reader, then breaks it, all without making the reader hate the family.

Today, Walls is a successful writer living in New York. She writes gossip columns, which I didn't know as I read the book, but find incredibly ironic, considering she spent her entire life praying no one would find out her secrets.

But Cinderella? She's got nothing on Jeannette Walls.

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