The Glass Castle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1964 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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.