Title: “The Glass Castle”
Author: Jeanette Walls
For centuries people have come to the United States for great opportunities and a chance at freedom, but even those living here have one thing forced upon them: their family.
In Jeannette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” she tells the story of how she came to be the person she is today and what comes to mind when she hears the word family.
The book starts in the present day with Jeannette as a young woman living in New York City. As her taxi crawls through traffic, she spots a woman digging through a dumpster and recognizes her mother immediately.
To explain this, Walls jumps back in time to tell her earliest memory. She is three years old and is cooking hot dogs on the stove when her pink tutu catches on fire. Parts of her chest, stomach and thigh are severely burned and she stays in the hospital for six weeks as new skin graphs try to repair the damage.
Although this is Walls’ first memory, the majority of the stories from her past are very different. Most of her memories involve traveling from home to home in one beat up car to the next. She describes how bill collectors, or FBI agents as her father called them, were always chasing them. They never lived in one place for too long and as a young kid, it was exciting. Walls, her two sisters and brother got to sleep like Indians under the stars. What six-year-old wouldn’t want to do that?
As she describes her “always on the move” childhood, Walls tells the reader a little about her parents. Rose Marie Walls believed strongly in the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” She didn’t believe in modern medicine and there was no baby-talking in her house. She was also very devoted to her husband and sadly, was willing to follow him into every bad decision he made.
The stories about her father are the most interesting. Rex Walls was a very intelligent man who taught his four children everything there was to know about geology, physics and math. However, the death of their second child drove him to alcoholism which stayed with him until he died. This disease caused him to waste the little money he earned and many times caused his family to go hungry for days on end. His most famous line, which he repeats dozens of times in his lifetime but is rarely answered, is “Have I ever let you down?”
The Walls’ family dynamic forced Jeannette and her siblings to grow up fast. They became each other’s parents and were as independent as they could be. Once each child graduated high school, they each moved to New York City to pursue their own hopes and dreams. As soon as all four children moved out, their parents followed them and subsequently became homeless in the city. To survive, they dove into dumpsters and slept on park benches until the very end of their lives.
“The Glass Castle” is a story about family but it also one about love. Through all the economic hardships the Walls family faced, each child was reminded of how special they were and that their parents loved them. One especially touching moment was one Christmas when the family was out of money for gifts. To make up for it, each kid got to pick out a star from the sky to call their very own. They felt like the luckiest kids on the planet.
I also loved how Walls makes a point of saying that each time a child left for New York, their parents never stopped them. They were free to make their own choices and when the opportunity came to leave their parents who were struggling financially to put food on the table, they weren’t held back.
Love sometimes means letting the people you’re closest with go and “The Glass Castle” does its best to explain this difficult concept in a very personal way.