The Glass Castle By Jeannette Walls Book Review
The Glass Castle is a story unlike any other. Written by Jeannette Walls, a former journalist and gossip columnist, this book strays far from her usual work. Like other memoirs, Jeannette’s book recounts events from her early life, but with an unusual twist. Rather than writing from her current perspective, Jeannette Walls’ memoir is written from the perspective of her younger self as she experienced the events. This divergence from the normal retelling in memoirs makes the book read like a fictional story rather than a reflection on the past. Using this innovative writing style, Jeannette manages to deeply convey her thoughts and feelings throughout her experiences in a way nothing else has, making this one of the best memoirs ever written.
Beginning with the story of how she caught herself on fire at the ripe old age of three, The Glass Castle follows Jeannette’s childhood of living a nomadic lifestyle with her alcoholic father, Rex, self-centered mother, Rosemary, and her three siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen. It’s mostly set in the family’s four most prominent settlements, Battle Mountain, Phoenix, Erma’s house, and their house in Welch.
Her story revolves a lot around her relationship with her father, Rex. Rex was a charismatic alcoholic. A brilliant man when he was sober, he captured his children’s imaginations and turned their constant fleeing into adventures. Or, at least that's what Jeannette thought for the earliest years of her childhood. As she grew older and matured she started to see through his facades, realizing how bad his drinking had gotten, how he could never hold a job, how he spent every last cent he could scam away from his family on booze and gambling. It was during his clean periods that his true colors really showed through though, he actually did try to make his kids happy. Like how he taught his kids seemingly useless things, like binary code, for fun, and how one year he gave them all stars for Christmas and Jeannette chose Jupiter. But these good times just make the bad ones feel even worse. For example, the time he bought the family a steak dinner so he could steal Rosemary’s teaching wages, or when he stole the money the kids had been saving in order to move to New York and spent it on a luxury car. Yet, in the end, after all that, you can tell that Jeannette truly believed in him and loved him because of how devastated she was when he died.
Another reaction to Rex’s death that really highlighted some character was what Rosemary did immediately after he died. She first notices that something is wrong with him as she is heading out to walk a dog, and instead of calling an ambulance or trying to get help, she just keeps walking the dog so she doesn’t have to deal with it. This is just one of many times where her reckless ignorance puts her family in danger. There is also the time where the family has no money for food, and while everyone else was losing weight it turned out that she had been gaining it because she was spending money that could have fed her family on chocolate. Similarly, she has a rule that her kids can’t mention that they're struggling and have to pretend that everything is fine and constantly moving around and starving is fun. This comes to light after she yells at Jeannette and Lori for eating the last food in the house, a stick of margarine. Rosemary also never bothered to even try to make a better life for her kids. The few times she held a job as a teacher she would refuse to get up in the mornings to go and the kids had to drag her to school and help her grade papers as if they were the parents and she was the kid. Overall, throughout the story, when push came to shove, Rosemary has been self-centered and ignorant to the point of neglecting and even sometimes endangering her kids and never tried to make better lives for them or even show she cared at all.
The other prominent family members in Jeannette's childhood were her siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen. Though they aren't featured as often as the other characters you can still tell a bit about them. The oldest is Lori, she is intelligent and helped her mom grade homework and write lesson plans while she was teaching. Overall, she probably did more teaching than her mother did. She didn't go on adventures with the other kids when she was little because of her poor vision, instead she liked to read and do art with her mom and was the closest to her between the siblings. The next oldest sibling, older than Maureen but younger than Jeannette and Lori, was Brian. He was always there to protect his sisters and was always there to comfort them during the struggles. He was the most mature of the siblings as well as the closest to Jeannette. Being the only brother Brian feels like he has to be a head of the house and takes odd jobs to help support the family. Maureen is the youngest sibling, born when Jeannette was around six, and we don’t see much of her in the book because she is always staying with friends to escape her home life. Being so young, Maureen, unfortunately, missed out on the better situations in Jeannette’s early years, but being the youngest also meant that her older siblings felt the need to protect her. Making her outcome all the more sad because, after all the other siblings did to make a better life for her, she ended up just like her parents and even ended up stabbing her mother.
A lot of wild experiences happened during Jeannette’s childhood, most of them bad, unfortunately. For example, the reason they had to leave battle mountain so quickly. A boy who had been harassing Jeannette came to their house, which was a renovated train station at the time, and started shooting at them with a BB gun, so the kids got their dad's gun and fired at him, missing him but scaring him off. That night they did what Rex called the skedaddle, they packed up and left, moving to Rosemary’s late mother’s house in Phoenix. Another terrifying experience for the kids was when they were on the way to battle mountain, they had rented a U-Haul and the parents sat up front and the kids rode in the container and rather than Maureen, who was a newborn at the time, sitting on her mother’s lap during the trip, the kids had to carry her in the container while she cried. At one point a giant gust of wind flung the back doors open, leaving the kids fearing for their lives after almost getting sucked out. They banged on the back of the cabin for hours before a passing car signaled the parents and they pulled over to close the doors and yell at the terrified kids. Similarly was the time Jeannette fell out of the car they called the green goose and the parents didn’t even notice and ignored Lori and Brian when they tried to tell them and she thought they were going to leave her there. The car story did have somewhat of a light-hearted ending though because her dad made her laugh when he called her nose a snot-locker.
Luckily though, with all the bad stories came some good ones, like the time Rex had a stable job in Phoenix and was able to buy all the kids bikes. Or how they would all read together in battle mountain and they kept a dictionary in the middle of the room so they could look up words they didn’t know. Sometimes Rex or the kids didn’t agree with the dictionary’s definition and they wrote letters back and forth until the dictionary company stopped responding. There were times in battle mountain when Rex had a good job and the kids had plenty of food and would sometimes pick up cans along the side of the road to recycle for money to buy candy with. Overall, most of the good times came in battle mountain, when Rex had a good job, the kids went to school and Rosemary could paint or play piano all day without abandoning the kids because they had other things to do.
The stories were great, but the writing is what makes the book truly amazing. Contrary to the normal style of memoirs, where the stories are narrated as the author looking back at them, The Glass Castle is written from the perspective of Jeannette as she was while experiencing the events. This writing style adds a whole other layer of immersion and plunges the reader into Jeannette’s memory to see the world as she did and show how she processed events. It’s an incredible way to see the world in a new light, practically from someone else's eyes. The writing style makes the reader understand her perspective so well, it brings you into her mind in a way that is so uncanny. It creates a reading experience different from anything else. Jeannette Walls is a very brave woman to put her story out into the world this way, so that people can understand her deepest thoughts and feelings. But it’s important that she did, it gave readers a new perspective on the world and, even if ever so slightly, made the world a better place.
All in all, the glass castle is an incredibly immersive experience of happiness and hardships about paving your own path for a better future despite your circumstances. An amazing book that gets you thinking in a whole new way. And though a picture may be worth a thousand words, the words in this book paint a thousand pictures of life through a different lens.
Walls, Jeannette, The Glass Castle, New York, Scribner, 2005