Author of The Silver Star: A Novel and Half Broke Horses: A Real-Life Novel, Jeannette Walls is no stranger to writing about families in difficult situations. Before she took on writing Silver Star and Half Broke Horses, a story that follows her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, and her struggles to overcome poverty, Walls wrote a memoir that recalls her own struggles.
The Glass Castle is a memoir that follows Jeannette’s family as they continuously looked for a place to live, including rundown houses and nights spent under the stars in the desert. Walls explains that “the more desolate and isolated a place was, the better Mom and Dad liked it.” During that time, her father, Rex Walls, took on whatever works he could find in between his constant drinking and abusive behavior at home. Rex Walls told his children exaggerated stories, daring them to believe in the natural world beyond city life, and promised to build a glass castle for them to live in.
As a child, Jeannette thrived off of her father’s stories. She believed in him more than anyone else in her family, forgiving his drunken, abusive behavior. She loved viewing his design plans for the glass castle. Rex gave his daughter reasons to feel special, such as the night he took her into the desert and offered the planet Venus as a Christmas present. Jeannette believed her mother, Rose Mary, when she blamed her poor parenting choices on the fact that living the way they did was an adventure. Rex and Rose Mary believed in the hardships of life, raising their four children in poor conditions. Thet were left to rummage through garbage cans for food and protect each other in fights, while their mother painted and their father spent time at the bar. When the family moved to West Virginia, they lived in a house with no insulation during the harsh winters and a hole in the ceiling. The family kept falling through the broken boards on the porch, and they resolved the issue by using a window for the front door.
The character development throughout the book shows how the children’s thoughts changed as they matured, growing into individuals who realized the severity of their crumbling reality and pined for a way out. Walls uses the emotions she felt during difficult times to pull the reader into her mind, allowing them to see the transformation of her attitude toward her parents. When her mother preferred laying in bed, crying about how unfair her life was, Jeannette made a promise she would never live that way. When Rex stole money from her sister’s New York savings in order to buy alcohol, Jeannette gave her babysitting job to her sister. When the pit next to their house for the glass castle foundation began to fill with garbage, Jeannette realized her father was never going to change, no matter how many promises he made.
The pacing and description takes the reader through her entire childhood and the ups and downs her family experienced. They were vivid memories that made me feel personally involved in their lives. The characters felt very real. I found myself growing frustrated with the parenting style of Rex and Rose Mary. The innocence of the children enduring these difficult circumstances made me pity their situation, and I spent a majority of the book hoping the children would find an escape from their parents. I felt happy for them as, one by one, they escaped the horrors in West Virginia and found a life worth living in New York.
Wall’s writing style was simple to follow. The chain of events that she mapped out through her struggles left me feeling like I was sitting in a room with Jeannette Walls and listening to her tell her own story. I recommend this book. It was an easy read, and I couldn’t put it down. Rose Mary put it best in a toast to Rex, “Life with your father was never boring.” It is a heartbreaking story that takes the reader through the emotions of a little girl that lost faith in her father and had to find her own way in the world.