Nov 14, 2011

The Weeknight Book Club: The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.

My Weeknight Book Club posts have been few and far between of late.  Which is strange because I've read quite a few novels in the last couple of months.  Thinking back, I realize that I haven't reviewed many of them because, though they were enjoyable reads, they explored themes and plots familiar and loved by me so my reviews would end up being pretty bland and predictable.  Not the purpose of the Weeknight Book Club at all.

However, I have just finished reading a book that has inspired me to write a review.  It had me hooked from page one.  I read it through the flight home, while waiting for my luggage, in the line for the taxi (a crying shame there were only 5 people in the taxi line), in the taxi and whilst trying to unpack last night.  I've finished it now and I just have to tell you about it.  I hope you get the chance to discover this novel as well.  I have my friends on Twitter to thank for suggesting this and many other great reads.

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'The Glass Castle', by Jeanette Walls was first published in 2005.  It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks and I understand it is to be made into a film.  I don't know how I feel about this but anyway....

Jeanette Walls is an American journalist who as a very successful career behind her including stints with New York magazine, Esquire and USA Today.  'The Glass Castle' is her autobiographical memoir of a nomadic and at times neglectful childhood with her parents Rose Mary and Rex Walls as well as Jeanette's siblings Brian, Lauri and Maureen. 

When I first searched for this novel on the Kindle page, I remember reading the description of 'The Glass Castle' and assuming that I would be reading pages of loving and indulgent prose about a pair of eccentric hippies with 'alternative' attitudes to child rearing that allowed for development of creativity, free thinking and independence in a warm and loving home environment.  Yes, the Walls children certainly did develop creative and indepedent minds but they did this to survive what at times was a hellish upbringing by two individuals who had a number of personal demons including alcohol addiction, possibly psychiatric disorders (though Jeanette herself never says this explicitly in the novel) .

The 'glass castle' of the title refers to Rex's dream home for his family.  Set in the 1950s and onward, Rex was ahead of his time in thinking green.  His house would be solar powered and self sufficient.  He kept meticulous floor plans and complex calculations relating to the way the house would be built.  The plans were constantly modified and never left his side as the family went from one city to the next, to 'escape the FBI' when in fact they were probably escaping land lords and baliffs.

As young children, it was easy for Jeanette and her siblings to live the 'dream life' of 'adventure' her parents created around them.  Young children don't eat much and can be easily bundled into a car for quick getaways.  They can sleep in cardboard boxes and play all day using  imagination to create toys out of what they've got.  Very young children also don't have to go to school and see how different their standard of living is in comparison to their peers.

There were many times that the adult Walls' delusions about the world put their children in danger.  On one occasion, Jeanette burned her body at age 3 after trying to make hot dogs on her own.  She went to hospital for the slow and painful treatment for these burns.  She seemed to thrive in the sterile, ordered world where she got 3 meals a day, clean linen and regular baths.  Rex saw it differently and decided to 'save' Jeanette by simply removing her from the hospital.  After this brush with western medicine, none of the children ever received medical attention for any of the burns, lacerations or even visual impairments.  It was decided for them that nature and human will would cure all.

As Jeanette grows older, she begins to see the difference between her family's life and those of the people around her.  Their house was always the most neglected on the street, they were always unwashed, they ate sporadically, they were the poorest of the poor.  Jeanette is torn between the love of her parents and their at times misguided ways of raising her and the desire for a better, more ordered life.  She tries so hard to encourage her parents to change their ways, they try to change for her but nothing ever lasts but unpredictability and scarcity.

There are many ugly moments in the novel as Jeanette sees her parents descend into a world governed by their vices of alcohol, women, gambling and food quite blatantly at the expense of the needs of her siblings and herself.  Rex and Mary Rose have no problem with buying into conventional society when it suits their desires but are more than ready to to revert to their idealism when these desires have been satisified or the money runs out.

The children are deprived again and again of proper food, clothing and shelter as the housekeeping money is wheedled away for 'projects', 'research' and simply becuase 'I need to look after me once in a while'.  Jeanette has always been her father's favourite child and to read about his attempt to use her to earn some drinking money from a friend at the local seedy bar is gut wrenching.

One of the ironies of Rex and Mary Rose is that there were many points at which they could have found adequate money to remove the squalor that surrounded their children.  A precious diamond ring serendepitously found on the site of their house could have been sold to finance a more safely constructed residence but Mary Rose keeps the ring because Rex pawned her previous engagement ring and this is her replacement.  Rex falls in and out of employment, always leaving a job when he suspects that the boss has turned against him.  Both staunchly refused to apply for social security on the grounds that the universe would provide - eventually.

The Wall parents undoubtedly loved their children but they seemd to love their dream world that was partly idealistic fantasy and mostly abject poverty even more.  Somehow, parents and offspring remained a loving and tightly knit unit through all the ups and downs.

Rex and Mary Rose do their best to raise their family according their beliefs.  Food, clothing and shelter may be provided sporadically, but a love of art, literature and creativity was fed to all their children constantly.  Jeanette becomes very gifted in writing and Lauri becomes a great artist.  The girls decide that the only way they can succeed in life is to work hard at their talents and obtain the education that will enable them to make a better life for themselves.  Painfully, they save money and apply for scholarships and are frustrated many times by their parents' obstructive behaviour.

Eventually Lauri and Jeanette escape to New York City to begin new lives and their siblings eventually join them.  The children make a go of their lives in conventional society and all achieve great success.  Rex and Mary Rose move to New York City to join them, continuing to live the 'adventure' unfettered by the demands of their children.

'The Glass Castle' is a thought provoking read.  Through the childhood recollections of her life, Jeanette Wells challenges and confronts our assumptions of what family means and the roles of parents and children toward each other.  How 'should' the love of a parent be demonstrated to their children?  How should this love manifest?  Does a child's love for their parents have to sometimes be tempered by a need for that child to protect itself from its parents?  These are questions many people assume would never have to be asked nor that they could be answered in such a complex way as they are in 'The Glass Castle'. 

A second theme of the novel is survival.  The Wall children survived so many adversities through perseverance, self belief and resilience.  They literally had nothing to lose but everything to gain in their attempts to improve their lives.  However, their success in escaping their childhood brings with it guilt and resentment.

Jeanette Wall writes so vividly, the novel is an experience for the reader, we are not merely reading about her childhood memories, we are brought into them.  I also found it a feat of self control and compassion that at no point did Jeanette actually pass judgement on her parents and the life they forced upon their children. 


  1. Sounds like my kind of book! All the books I've enjoyed recently are about people overcoming terrible childhoods and various hardships. Off to Book Depository now.

    I'm trying to read The Slap at the moment, but am pretty close to giving up. I can't get into because the characters are just so damn annoying.

    TDM xxx

  2. I read this book on a plane too! Like you I was hooked from start to finish, an incredible story and so well written.


  3. So glad that you enjoyed this book. I thought it was fantastic. Made me laugh and cry many times. :-)

  4. Wow, sounds amazing! This is definitely going on my Christmas reading list.

  5. SSG, such a great book review of a novel that has missed my attention. Until now. I will be ordering this now! Thanks for that!


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