In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls describes her life in clear, meticulous, extremely readable prose. Her tough childhood makes some others’ claims of survival seem self-indulgent. Walls’s writing portrays the difficult circumstances of her family without a trace of self-pity. Despite the inability of her parents to provide a stable home, Jeannette’s love for her entire family is unmistakable.
Although the book is divided into five sections, the chapters within each section are not numbered. The first part is called “Woman on the Street,” followed by the longest section, “The Desert.” Then comes “Welch,” “New York City,” and finally, “Thanksgiving.”
In the opening chapter, Walls describes seeing her mother on the streets of New York City. Through the window of a taxi, just as she is wondering whether she is overdressed for a party, she glimpses her mother rooting through trash barrels in the East Village. Not wanting to risk being seen with her, Jeannette orders the taxi driver to take her back home, to her Park Avenue address, while her mother goes about her life on the street like so many homeless New Yorkers.
From this scene, Jeannette takes the reader back to her earliest memory. She is three years old. As she stands on a chair at the stove boiling hot dogs in a pot, her dress catches fire. A reader cannot help but be struck by the inappropriateness of a child this young preparing her own meals. During the time Jeannette is hospitalized for her burns, she enjoys her stay within quiet, snug walls, experiencing regular meals for the first time and discovering such marvels as chewing gum.
Jeannette and her older sister, Lori, have a brother, Brian, and another sister, Maureen. The resourceful children eat whatever they are given and forage for food or collect scraps and bottles that they can sell for cash. Despite their circumstances, Jeannette’s memories of her young days seem to be happy ones. The children are not particularly “bad,” occupied as they are with the problem of basic survival. Their parents do give them lots of practical advice and encourage their independence.
Rather than being neglectful and uncaring during their children’s younger years, Walls’s parents, in this portrayal, possess offbeat practicality and a liberal philosophy. Walls’s mother, Rose Mary Walls, considers herself an artist and spends as much time as possible painting, writing, and sculpting. She wishes her children to be self-reliant, and the Walls children are forced to look out for themselves and one another in daily life. Rex Walls, Jeanette’s father, is a dreamer, always working on some invention guaranteed to make the family rich, if only he can get the funding to complete his plans.
The family is rootless and highly mobile, masters of “the skedaddle,” usually accomplished late at night. Whenever the family’s unpaid bills have piled up, the Wallses pile a few possessions in whichever old car they have and hit the road. Walls’s childhood passes this way in a series of small, dusty mining towns in the deserts of Arizona, California, and Nevada. When the family settles long enough for the children to attend school, they are made aware of their relative poverty. Though not the only ones who are needy, they are often the poorest family in their community.
Rex Walls can talk himself into jobs at nearby mines, digging the minerals or sometimes working as an electrician, but the jobs never last. In these days, Rex has two distinct states to his alcoholism. The family prefers his “beer phase”; they can handle his fast driving and loud singing. When he brings home...
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a bottle of “the hard stuff,” however, he inevitably turns into “an angry-eyed stranger who threw around furniture and threatened to beat up” anyone within reach. Times of little money have their bright side, in that Rex cannot buy hard liquor.
In between the births of their first and second daughters, the Walls had lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome, and Rose Mary claimed that Rex had changed because of it. As the narrative goes on, however, it grows more apparent that Rex Walls is a fairly classic alcoholic, with enough charm and plenty of excuses to cruise through life. Neither parent seems to want a comfortable life for themselves and their children. Although Rex is always full of big dreams, he does little to realize them, and Rose Mary’s art never seems to earn attention. The biggest of Rex’s dreams is to build an enormous mansion of glass for his family, out in the desert and equipped with solar panels so that they will never lack for power. He draws up elaborate, detailed plans for the Glass Castle, inventing a fabulous life they will all live someday.
Rose Mary insists on looking at the family’s life as “one long and incredibly fun adventure,” and the children rarely break the “unspoken rule” against voicing discontent. On one occasion, when Jeannette eats the only remaining bit of food in the house, half a stick of margarine, her mother shows her irrationality by calling the child selfish. The confrontation leads to one of many instances when Rose Mary defends herself by blaming the failings of her husbandbut does nothing to change her and her children’s lifestyle.
As the family drifts through one desert town after another, Rex’s alcoholism worsens. He demands that his wife obtain cash from her well-off mother, a retired rancher in Texas, to finance his latest scheme, the “Prospector,” a machine designed to draw gold from ore. When Rose Mary refuses, Rex goes into a rage which culminates in a violent physical fight. Not long after this, Rose Mary takes a job as a teacher, although she resents leaving her art.
Apart from such bouts of drunken violence and her obvious disappointment in her husband, Rose Mary maintains a cheery, laissez-faire outlook on life. She has so few conventional social ideas that she does not even inform the children when their grandmother dies. The family inherits a large adobe house in Phoenix, Rex finds a job as an electrician, and the family prospers for a time. At his daughter’s request, Rex even quits drinking, an agonizing withdrawal he endures alone in his room. Despite a steady income, however, the Wallses cannot seem to keep their new house in good repair. Eventually Rex loses his job, word gets around, and he is back to full-time drinking.
Rose Mary decides that the family will move to Welch, West Virginia, the town where Rex grew up. His family still lives there, and Rose Mary hopes their Walls relatives can help keep Rex in line. Their time in West Virginia turns into a dark period in the Walls family history. Rex’s parents do not appreciate him and his family moving in with them and grudgingly share their meager resources. The Appalachian coal community cannot offer many jobs, and Rex soon becomes known as the town drunk.
Although Jeannette does not report any sexual abuse from her parents, a groping incident between her grandmother and her brother causes her to wonder whether her father was abused by his mother. She speculates that this may be why he is so angry and had resisted returning to West Virginia. Eventually the family is asked to leave the elder Wallses’ home. Rex and Rose Mary buy a rickety old house whose only saving grace is that it is perched so high up in the hills that they are spared the flooding the town below receives.
The family’s situation continues to deteriorate. No repairs are made to the house, and it slowly deteriorates around them. The facilities are so primitive that the children rarely bathe or wash their clothes. Jeannette feeds herself by furtively retrieving the leftover lunches her classmates throw away in the bathroom trash. The Walls children find a two-carat diamond ring on their property, but instead of selling it to feed her children, Rose Mary insists on keeping it to replace the wedding ring her husband pawned to buy liquor. When she is twelve, Jeannette visits the library to do some research and approaches her mother with the idea of leaving her father. Rose Mary refuses angrily.
At thirteen years of age, Jeannette passes herself off as seventeen and starts working in a store. She begins to save her money for an “escape fund.” Lori and Brian pitch in when they learn of her plan, and together the children begin amassing money to allow Lori to move to New York City after she graduates from high school. Unfortunately, Rex breaks open the piggy bank and unapologetically spends all the money on drink. Lori does escape, however; when Jeannette is offered an opportunity to leave Welch, she insists that Lori go in her place.
Jeannette works hard on her high school paper and leaves Welch for New York City after completing her junior year. Through school, she lands an internship at a small newspaper. Brian follows after completing his junior year. These three children of poverty, not averse to working hard, find jobs to support themselves. Jeannette’s editor convinces her to go to college, and she is accepted at Barnard.
Three years after Jeannette moves to New York, her parents call to tell her they have followed. Their lives have not changed, however. They are thrown out of boardinghouses and flophouses and end up living with Lori until she throws them out. Rex and Rose Mary become homeless people, but they seem to enjoy their freedom, finding a community in the city’s streets. Ashamed of them, Jeannette hides her history from friends, but she feels deep guilt at the material success for which she has worked. She offers her parents help on numerous occasions.
Rex contracts tuberculosis. He gives up drinking while he is in the hospital but resumes once he leaves. Her parents become squatters in an abandoned building and appear to be happy with their lives. Her mother even chides Jeannette for her lack of values, worrying aloud that “Next thing I know, you’ll become a Republican.”
The most heartbreaking revelation comes near the end of the New York section. After Rose Mary’s brother dies, she approaches Jeannette for a loan to buy his half of the Texas land she inherited from her parents. The oil leases on this land have yielded an occasional payment over the years, but Rose Mary had always been vague about details. When the sum her mother asks for proves to be large, Jeanette is astonished: All those years, while the family suffered without food, heat, or plumbing, her mother was sitting on land worth a million dollars.
The only Walls child who does not benefit from the move to New York City is the youngest, Maureen. She drifts from one boyfriend to another, seeking someone to take care of her. She exhibits signs of mental illness, and after moving into her parents’ squatters apartment, eventually spends all day sleeping. She is sent to a mental hospital for stabbing her mother after Rose Mary suggests that Maureen become self-sufficient like her siblings. Maureen eventually makes her way to California, the warm land she always dreamed about, and Jeannette expresses hope that she will find peace.
The last section of the book briefly describes a Thanksgiving family reunion. Rex has died, but Rose Mary still lives in the squatters apartment and maintains her cheerful enthusiasm. The Walls children are grown, but as they look at the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner spread on the table before them, Brian cannot help but remark, “You know, it’s really not that hard to put food on the table if that’s what you decide to do.”
Booklist 101, no. 11 (February 1, 2005): 923.
Entertainment Weekly, March 11, 2005, p. 107.
Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 24 (December 15, 2004): 1195.
Library Journal 130, no. 3 (February 15, 2005): 141.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (March 13, 2005): 1-13.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 3 (January 17, 2005): 41.
The Spectator 297 (April 30, 2005): 38-39.