Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

A Glass Castle for a Glass Family

Novelist, Jeannette Walls’ courageous memoir plunges us into her childhood experience fraught with abject poverty, disappointing heroes and survival at all costs. We watch a family struggle for air, aiming to rise above but always sinking, a ship helmed by parents who are clearly gifted, yet consistently underachieving and making irresponsible choices. Our desperate impression of the neglect Walls endures is softened by a child’s innocence, hope for empty promises to be fulfilled and a fierce loyalty to her family that shows in her compassionate retelling of her childhood, turning every misstep into adventure and opportunity for growth.

Our first glimpse of the irresponsible parenting that plagues Walls’ childhood is a ghastly scene when we witness three-year-old Jeannette accidentally ignite her favourite frilly dress while attempting to boil hot dogs for herself. Six weeks in hospital later, her father, Roy Walls, executes a daring rescue–our first experience of the famous Walls Skedaddle.

Rex Walls is a father who needs “to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals”. A shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father, not unlike Malachy McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, he often employs the skedaddle when his plans go awry. Whether it’s investigating a corrupt electrician’s union, inventing a gold prospecting device, or designing blueprints for his infamous glass castle, Rex Walls is the leader in the Walls family’s exploits, consistently moving them from place to place chasing his sometimes imaginary and always alcohol-fuelled schemes. As his daughter Jeannette is enchanted by her father, all of the family’s moves are recounted as marvellous adventures through dusty South Western scenery. It isn’t until she matures and begins making plans for her own life that she realizes how her family has grown weary of her dad’s “ridiculous dreams and his stupid plans and his empty promises”. If Rex Walls is consistent in one way, it’s in his ability to disappoint everyone who relies on, or trusts in his judgement.

Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary Walls, is the structural support of the Walls family. However self-indulgent and self-sabotaging she may be, she is their main financial resource when times are tough. Through an inheritance and the occasional teaching job, Rose Mary pulls up her bootstraps a number of times to support her children and her husband’s alcoholism. Rose Mary prefers to pursue her career as an artist, and is always hopeful that the next town will lead to her big break. With a philosophy that, “rules and discipline held people back and . . . that the best way to let children fulfill their potential was by providing freedom”, her motivation to teach is quickly lost with the children helping her write tests and mark homework, before she inevitably quits to return to painting.

The parentification of the Walls children has affected Jeannette the most of her siblings, especially when it comes to her father. She is often left feeling that she alone must care for his emotional needs and cannot resist his manipulation to take grocery money from her to spend on alcohol and gambling. Walls’ memoir gives the reader concern for her eventual wellbeing as an adult after her traumatic upbringing. We root for her to make something more of her life, to accomplish her dreams. When we see what she makes of her life, we question if her parents’ philosophy on rearing children doesn’t ring some truth. Does suffering make us grow more capable, independent and resilient? Perhaps not suffering to this degree, but perhaps not having the idyllic childhood which is praised in our culture. We root for the Walls children to escape their family in the end, but we also hope for their parents to come to a better life. In the end, it’s hard to say that they don’t.