The first chapter begins mundanely enough. An adult Jeannette Walls, sitting in the backseat of a taxi in NYC, catches sight of her mother rooting through a dumpster. The mother and daughter meet up for a meal, and Walls asks her mother what she needs. Her mother recoils, accusing Walls of having lost her priorities. On the next page, Walls is three years old and on fire.
The Glass Castle is a fiercely detailed memoir about her nomadic upbringing with free-spirited and often reckless parents. What struck me immediately was the way her experiences show the dark side of being free-spirited, the toll it can take, especially when children are involved. The idea of living on the road, or constantly relocating is heavily romanticized making it easy to forget the many downsides.
That’s not to say that the struggles of Walls’ childhood were entirely caused by her frequently changing environment. In fact, many of the struggles come down to the mindset her parents share. Her mother came from money, but wanted to break away from her family and become an artist. Her father came from little, and rejects the idea of having a normal, long-term career. This is due in part to his paranoia—he constantly worries that the government is on to him, as he seems to get into legal trouble everywhere he goes—as well as his worsening alcoholism.
Walls’ writing is captivating, partially because it’s so mercilessly detailed. Her memory of these events—no doubt supplemented by her siblings’ recollections—makes the memoir read like fiction. As with fiction, scenes from The Glass Castle are painted richly as if from imagination, and at times Walls’ experiences seem unbelievable. Not due to lack of credibility. Any moments where I, as a reader, found the memoir unbelievable were due to just how intense Walls’ experiences were, and how matter-of-factly she shared them. For this reason, the book made a voracious reader of me. It demanded my attention. The drama and unrelenting struggles her family experienced made it gripping in a way that I thought was exclusive to fiction, and it was absolutely captivating.
Walls’ writing is structured and elegant. I kept being taken aback by how much she remembered. Then it dawned on me that her memory wasn’t incidental. Throughout much of the memoir, her parents are described as being unreliable. For the most part, they aren’t jumping to provide for their family. They were loyal to their children and one another, but are unwilling—with few exceptions—to find steady jobs so they could afford suitable living spaces. From the start, we see Jeannette and her siblings as children more or less caring for themselves. At three, Walls’ dress catches on fire as she is making hotdogs for herself over an open flame. She is severely burned and spends days in a hospital. And this is only one example. Constantly the Walls children are left to fend for themselves, with their parents only lightly chaperoning. The Walls family is proof that love and loyalty can exist in tandem with negligence. I suspect the unreliability of her parents inspired a dedication to reliability in Walls herself. Because she couldn’t depend on her parents to pay attention to everything, she had to depend on herself. The result is a memory full of details, as well as analyses, as she maps out just how her family fell apart time and time again.
I feel as if I could go on about this book forever. Of the books I read in 2015, it is definitely one of my favorites. It demanded my attention and stuck with me long after I’d turned the last page. Throughout her various hardships, I never once stopped rooting for Jeannette Walls. She was torn between staying loyal to her family and wanting more for herself. I related to this in many ways, despite my personal circumstances being different. In my head, what sets The Glass Castle apart from many other memoirs is how Walls approached it. As an adult, she worked as a journalist. This level of detail and dedication to accuracy is apparent in every page. She writes beautifully and emotionally but doesn’t often take extensive emotional detours. She presents the words, events, and memories artfully and lets them speak for themselves. In that way, every sentence holds power beyond its confines, and proves Walls to be an expert and artful storyteller.