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book review: ...The Glass Castle... Sparkles in a Sea of Memories

Walls Describes Crazy Childhood with Poignant Details

By Jillian Berry

The Glass Castle

Written by Jeannette Walls

Published by Scribner

Known for her stunning portrayals of the lives of others, Jeannette Walls finally gives the dish on her own history. In her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” she recounts her unique childhood with brilliant, but crazy, parents. Her father was an alcoholic who loved his children, but was never able to keep a job long enough to provide for them. Her mother was an artist who believed children should be given the opportunity to fend for themselves in order to build character. In addition, Mrs. Walls appeared to suffer from bipolar disorder, convinced that she was a martyr who had given up her art to raise her children. This led her to think that she ought to be able to focus on herself, even as her children went hungry.

A typical example of Mr. and Mrs. Walls’ atypical parenting is described in the beginning of the book. Jeannette Walls explains that her earliest memory is of burning herself while steaming hot dogs at the age of three. She recounts the questioning from the nurses and doctors about the burn:

“They asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them. It wasn’t like there was some complicated recipe that you had to be old enough to follow … ‘Mom says I’m mature for my age,’ I told them, ‘and she lets me cook for myself a lot.’”

Since her parents were always running out of money, the Walls and their four children were repeatedly doing the “skedaddle,” in which they would pack up in the middle of the night and move to a distant town in the middle of nowhere. As a young girl, the author did not realize how unusual her situation was, and she believed in her parents’ dream of finding gold and building a glass castle. However, as she grew up, she slowly grasped that her life was not normal and that her parents were never going to lift themselves out of poverty. In fact, she learned that she had to escape her parents in order to make something of herself.

This book is an entertaining memoir that often seems more outrageous than fiction. I began the book knowing that the author is a contributor to MSNBC and has worked at Esquire, USA Today, and New York magazine, but for much of the novel I could not comprehend how she ended up so successful after her bizarre and impoverish childhood.

As the work progresses, the subtle changes in the language show the author’s gradual accumulation of knowledge. While she explicitly narrates her own thoughts, she describes the other members of her family perfectly. Furthermore, her tone never begs for pity. Instead, she seems to have moved long past her traumatic childhood and is just trying to tell her story to the world.

The major flaw with the work is the ending. Walls never explains how she ends up in her job, living in Virginia, or meeting her husband. The last ten years she describes seem particularly rushed. I know the memoir is meant to focus on her childhood, but there just should have been something more.

Aside from the ending, this is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it for the summer during our respite from exams and problem sets. I am sure you will be as shocked and amazed as I was to find out just how crazy a life can be.