The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls

Posted 9 April, 2009 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 44 Comments

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Title: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Date Finished: April 8, 2009 #17
Published: 2005 Pages: 288
Rating: 5/5

I know you’re eyeing that 5 out of 5, but let me tell you–it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that so completely consumed me. Often, even if I’m really liking a book, I’ll get a little bored halfway through, but with this one I could not put it down and kept turning page after page all the way until the end. What a great surprise given the mixed reviews I’ve seen for this book.

The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of growing up in extreme poverty, and sometimes even extreme neglect, with parents who clearly loved her and her siblings, but did not know how to provide for the family. Jeannette is the middle child, with an older sister, Lori, younger brother, Brian, and a baby sister, Maureen. Jeannette and her siblings became fighters and survivors as their parents dragged them from hovel to hovel–sometimes living in dilapidated shacks, sometimes living with relatives, sometimes just squatting wherever they could find shelter. They were always doing the “skeedadle” to escape the law or debt or to try and find work–first through small desert towns in the west and eventually in West Virginia.

Walls tells her story with biting and bitter humor, but there is also such tenderness and hope in her voice as she tries to understand why her father refuses to find work (he is convinced he has been blackballed by the unions) or why her mother puts up with her drunken father who gambles and drinks away their little money or why her mother chooses to lounge about when she has a valid teaching certificate and can get a job at the drop of a hat. Everything to her parents is an adventure, and I had to sometimes laugh with sadness when Jeannette’s mother was so backwardly positive about everything and how her father was always able to convince the kids that he never let them down.

The book is sad and heartbreaking, there is no doubt. And there were things that made me want to scream and throw the book at the wall. I spent a great deal of the book being incredibly angry at Jeannette’s parents and their actions (or lack of action). What kept me compelled to keep reading, though, was knowing that Jeannette and her siblings made it out of the hole their parents dug for them and that they succeeded despite everything that was thrown in their way. Jeannette never lost faith and continued to persevere even when it seemed that everything had been taken from her and her sisters and brother.

I wish I could find a short passage from the book to show Walls’s writing style, but her paragraphs flow so beautifully that it was difficult to find a self-contained passage. In the passage below, Jeannette’s father keeps throwing her into a hot spring before she knows how to swim; the second passage is when Jeannette is a teenager trying to grapple with her mother’s wild mood swings.

I staggered out of the water and sat on the calcified rocks, my chest heaving. Dad came out of the water, too, and tried to hug me, but I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, or with Mom, who’d been floating on her back as if nothing were happening, or with Brian and Lori, who gathered around and were congratulating me. Dad kept telling me that he loved me, that he never would have let me drown, but you can’t cling to the side your whole life, that one lesson every parent needs to teach a child is ‘If you don’t want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.’ What other reason, he asked, would possibly make him do this?
Once I got my breath back, I figured he must be right. There was no other way to explain it (66).


It was hard for me to believe that this woman with her head under the blankets, feeling sorry for herself and boohooing like a five-year-old, was my mother. Mom was thirty-eight, not young but not old, either. In twenty-five years, I told myself, I’d be as old as she was now. I had no idea what my life would be like then, but as I gathered up my schoolbooks and walked out the door, I swore to myself that it would never be like Mom’s, that I would not be crying my eyes out in an unheated shack in some godforsaken holler (208).

I would highly recommend this book. Yes, there have been a lot of mixed reviews. Yes, the subject matter is tough to swallow. Yes, it might seem a little inconceivable that Walls can remember so vividly to when she was three years old or that all of these things could truly happen to one family (some people think this–this is not necessarily my thought). But despite everything else, this book has so much emotion and heart and I think you’ll find yourself cheering for Jeannette all the way until the end. If you’re looking for a good non-fiction book for the NFF challenge (hint hint), this would be perfect.

These people read it too:

(If I’m missing yours, please let me know–the search results went crazy with this one)

44 Responses to “The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls”

  1. I just picked this one up at the huge book sale our school district put on last weekend. I probably won’t get to it for a couple months, but I’m looking forward to it.

    I also believe it’s perfectly natural to remember very vividly things from that young. I remember things back to when I was still laying in a crib, unable to crawl, and have confirmed my memories with people who were adults at the time. So it IS possible, if not common, to remember back that far.

  2. That was an awesome review as usual trish! I have been hearing so many things about this book and what scares me is the fact that it is real. I have always beleived that no matter what, parents would always take care of their children. I thought it was a natural instinct. The premise of this book scares me! how could parents be this negligent??

  3. I also really enjoyed The Glass Castle. I found the unconditional love that Jeannette affords her parents througout all the turmoil was very accurate for a child desperately wishing and hoping things will turn around. It’s a survival technique used by many children in the depths of despair.

    With regard to the mixed reviews, I also did not find the perpetual disaster that was her family’s existence hard to believe, as I am very aware that disasterous families are everywhere, some far worse than this one.

    It has been a while since I read this, so I enjoyed hearing about it again. Thanks for the excellent review.

  4. I have not yet read the book, but my daughter did for her English class and we were fortunate enough to hear Jeannette Walls at a local university. She is such an eloquent speaker who amazingly harbors no bitterness toward any family member. I was truly inspired after I left the event – and I very much look forward to finding the time to read the memoir for myself.

  5. *Bethany – I think this will definitely be on my top 10 for the year also.

    *Amanda – I have a terrible terrible memory, but my husband remembers things from the crib also. This is a really quick read–maybe you could squeeze it in for the read-a-thon.

    *Bermuda – I agree that this is a very thoughtprovoking book–we’ll have a good book club discussion for sure.

    *Tricia – I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, for sure.

    *Ramya – The parents were negligent, but they were never physically abusive. It’s a tough read, but it doesn’t feel overly burdensome.

    *Diane – So glad you loved it also!

    *PeachyTO – I agree that Jeannette had to have hope to cling onto in order to survive. If that hope was lost, I don’t think she’d have come as far as she did.

    *Melissa – I know the feeling–I’m sure I’ll be re-reading this one day as well.

    *Molly – I would love to hear Jeannette speak! I hope you get to read this one someday, it really is an amazing story.

  6. cj

    What a great review. You’ve captured the truth of the book perfectly.

    It’s still as vivid for me today as it was when I finished it. I can’t say that for many books.


  7. It has been interesting to see the reception this book has gotten. I especially liked the author’s positive attitude despite her childhood. She never struck me as a victim, but rather a survivor.

  8. Nice review, and thanks for linking to mine. Like you said, I was angry at her parents’ lack of action, which I think can be equally as damaging as action.. if that makes sense.

  9. I read this awhile ago and had similar feelings as you. I did wonder how she rememembered all the details but I think some people have better memories than others. I read this with my book club and one friend questioned the accuracy of the book.

  10. *CJ – I agree that this book and its details will stick with me for a long time to come–something that doesn’t happen often.

    *Literary Feline – I felt that she was a survivor also–I still think it is amazing that she was able to thrive given the circumstances.

    *Charley – Definitely makes sense–I agree that their neglect or lack of action was every bit as damaging as if they had been abusive in other ways.

    *Amy – LOL! I’m so tough on the ratings, but this book really spoke to me. It was time for another 5/5. :)

    *Rebecca – I’ve got you linked now. I was kind of surprised at how much I liked this book, but it was so powerful!

    *Red lady-Bonnie – It’s difficult not to question, I think, with the rash of “fake” memoirs coming now out. I read A Million Little Pieces last year and now I always think of that book when I’m reading a memoir. I do believe this one is genuine, but I have seen people argue that it isn’t.

  11. I’m glad you enjoyed this book. I read it last year and really loved it. It was sad & heartbreaking- and even though parts made me crazy at times, I could not put it down. It was one of those books where I didn’t want the last page to come.

  12. I thought the book was great, too- although I felt indignant at the parents many times, and sorry for the kids, and glad they pulled through. Although the story was amazing, I’ve never known a family that went through so much- I never questioned if the author was fabricating things or remembering accurately. I just enjoyed the story, all the more amazing even if half of it was true.

  13. I loved this book. My husband couldn’t finish it because it depressed him too much (when they drove away, leaving their bikes in the yard, he just couldn’t take any more). I’m surprised it has gotten such mixed reviews.

  14. *Elise – I didn’t want that last page to come either, and I kept wanting more and more of her “normal” life. Glad you liked it too!

    *Rebecca – I’ve got you linked now. :)

    *Jeane – This really was an amazing story–it is almost unbelieveable to me that these kids ended up growing up so strong instead of wanderers like their parents. I just want to hold this book up and scream–see, it can be done!

    *Janssen – Well you wouldn’t know it from the comments on this post that there are mixed reviews–I kind of expected to get a little bit of backlash but everyone has loved it. Other than criticism for some of the inconsistencies and memory type things, I can’t remember what other negative things I’ve heard.

  15. Yay! I’m glad you liked this one so much! I still have a ways to go. Ironically, the one pages I’ve dog-eared so far to use the quote in my review is page 66. Hmmm…guess I’ll need to find another quote! :) Hopefully we’ll have some good discussion on Monday!

  16. Thanks for including my link. I read this with my book club and it led to a very good discussion. I’m glad you enjoyed it – it is VERY well written.

  17. This one is already sitting on my shelves waiting. I’m eager to read it, and yet afraid to as well.

    And speaking of the NFF, I got Rich to sign up. :) Yes, as you can see, I was rather pleased with myself.

  18. lol, I was eyeing the 5/5 in a good way only :P I knew of this book, but for some reason I hadn’t thought of actually reading it. Well, you’ve certainly changed that.

  19. I’m glad you liked it Trish~so did I. I read it quite a long time ago-before blogging days and it had such an impact on me. As I read your review it all came back to me and for me that’s the mark of a good book. I too have read the mixed reviews. I guess everyone reads something differently which leads them to their opinion but for me it was one of my favorites.

  20. Glad you liked this! I was mad most of the time I was reading also, but I think that shows how well it was written, that I became so emotional. I’m really curious about her upcoming book Half-Broke Horses.

  21. Liz

    I have a hard time with this book — loved it, on one level, but still cannot understand the unconditional love/forgiveness. I guess I know I can’t do the same. On the other hand, what an incredible book — it really stays with you (well, it did with me.) I never believed that Oprah book/memoir on drug addiction, but I totally embrace the authenticity of “Castle,” as well as this great memoir, about growing up with mental illness, (bipolar bare) — no capital letters in the title. It’s a complex interweaving of stories, and viewpoints, and images and diagnoses, which makes it just a wonderfully rich tapestry, in terms of a book to get lost in.

    Put it on your list…

  22. *Laura – I thought it was a really good discussion! Even though we all more or less liked the book, there were so many great topics!

    *Heather – I loved Walls’s writing style in this book also–I’ll look forward to other stuff she comes out with.

    *Debi – No, don’t be afraid of this one. It sounds like it is a really downer book, and in many ways it is, but there’s also something really positive about the author’s attitude. Saw Rich joined! Good work. :)

    *Nymeth – I think you’d find this book really interesting–and the writing is very nice. And it’s quick–won’t take you long to read.

    *Dar – This will be one of my favorites for the year for sure–it’s the kind of story that sticks with you.

    *Kim – You should read it–I think you’d like it!

    *Carrie – I think this one would be a great one to listen to–she does such a great job of writing fluidly that I think it would translate well to audio.

    *Joanne – I haven’t heard of Half-Broke Horses but I’m looking it up right now!!

    *Melody – Yup, those 5/5s don’t come around very often, but I’m trying not to be so stingy. :) It is a really interesting read.

    *Carol – Glad you loved it also!

    *Liz – If you’re referring to A Million Little Pieces I agree with you–but I believe a lot of the details in that book were fictionalized. Big no no if you’re writing a memoir. I’ll put bipolar bare on my list!

  23. Liz

    You’re right! That’s the name of it! It seemed fictionalized even when I read it…

    Enjoy “bipolar bare.”

  24. Would you believe I stumbled across this book in the Used section of the Library and bought this for 10 cents?! I still have not read it though. Guess I really need to now!

  25. *Liz – I read A Million Little Pieces after the controversy–not sure what I would have thought if I read it prior?

    *Sheri – This is defintely a great one! I’ll put your link you (sorry I’m so behind!!).

    *Michelle – Yes read it!! It is really good and very engaging…quick to get into.

    *Anna – everyone else seems to really love this book as well. If you get a hankering for a good memoir, try this one!

  26. verbatim

    Better late than never I guess. I just finished this book and I was curious to see how you felt about it. We agree again! Loved it, and it’s definitely in my top five of the year. Like you, I couldn’t put it down. Finished it within 24 hours.

  27. I don’t know If I said it already but …I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say great blog. Thanks!