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)