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The Glass Castle – Book Review


By Sophia Lambrecht

In order to share the astounding life she has led, admirable writer Jeanette Walls writes her controversial memoir The Glass Castle (2005) to reveal her thoughts that despite the hard-edges of life there is always something to live for. To develop this idea, Jeanette initially opens her memoir by detailing exactly where her life has lead-as a successful married writer. However, despite ending up as she intended, her background resulted in Jeanette becoming ashamed of the comfortable life she now led. Following this three-paged tid-bit Jeanette takes a trip into the past to begin her real story that covers her first memory in a near death-experience to growing up constantly on the move and living in nearly unfathomable conditions. Despite causing a reader to cringe at times, Walls’ accounts also gives images of beauty from the untamed freedoms in the desert to the joy of rewards after hard work. Her detailed explorations and self-discovery gives a sense of secretive understanding and camaraderie to young readers distressed by hard times in order to leave a subtle impression that despite the pains of life there is always hope for a future of change.

Jeanette Walls’ first set of memoirs opens with the unease she feels living a comfortable life when she grew up knowing hardship. One day while driving home from an event the adult Walls looks out her taxi window and espies her mother digging through the trash. Despite her mother’s obvious decrepit state, Walls is more troubled over her own cushy lifestyle. These ruminations begin a flashback towards Walls’ childhood beginning with her precocious three year old self boiling hot dogs when her dress catches fire and severely burns her body. Despite the terrible results of this accident coupled with a readers alarm of a three-year old preparing hotdogs, Walls follows her memory with “Instead I became fascinated by it…already beat the fire once and won.”(15). The optimism offered over conquering the fire and discovering how to deal with fear provides an insight to the yin-yang layered events throughout Walls’ subsequent life. After sneaking away from the hospital via “Rex Walls” style, the Walls family embarks on a series of constantly moving expeditions. In the desert Walls’ father, Rex, moves the family around as a consequence to his alcoholism, problems with the law, and inability to hold a steady job. “But Dad drank hard liquor only when we had money, which wasn’t often, so life was mostly good in those days.”(23). Most people would view alcoholism and poverty as negativities, yet for Walls everything bad had an upside. Especially prevalent in this adventure toned phase of her life, the prevalent memory of Walls was not disparity but was instead the wild freedoms of exploring the desert and the beauty of her environment from rich sunsets to discovering garnets and turquoise. Jeanette’s early childhood instills the reader with a jubilant sense of life underscored by anxiety over a seemingly impending doom. The image of the Glass Castle is also introduced in this section as some sort of attainable dream just beyond the family’s fingertips. Reflecting all the optimism of the wayward Walls, the Glass Castle represents fragile hopes in the face of poverty. In this time, the entire family was relatively buoyed. Mom thrived in her native desert environment with the nomadic lifestyle reflecting her bohemian dreams. Dad retained a better version of himself inventing random patents, dreaming of gold, and successfully scoring job after job. The children were relatively carefree as Jeanette was still too young to understand irresponsibility and as a consequence enjoyed the adventure of the heat.

The second phase of Jeanette’s life revolves around her more stagnant living conditions. When the bullish mother of Mom dies and leaves her Phoenix homestead to her daughter, the Walls family moves into the inheritance. The new house is described as a mansion with 14 rooms furnished with expensive and decorative items. Compared to the shacks they had previously lived in and the single item they were allowed to bring to their new location, Phoenix was a palace. “We had never had bicycles, and it never had occurred to me that I might actually own one myself. Especially a new one.” (96) The bittersweet imagery of the new luxuries should lend the reader a sense of comfort. Yet it is the prevalent sense of foreboding that makes the headlines. Spirits seemed up and the family begins to spend superfluously. However the biggest spending comes when Jeanette asks her father to give up drinking as her tenth birthday present and he acquiesces. After a year of living in Phoenix the family is driving one of their rusting cars when it breaks down along a highway. They are picked up by a kind lady who exclaims “this poor family. We can’t leave those poor people out there. Those poor kids must be dying of thirst poor things. ‘We are not poor’ I said” (121). The event brings a shock back to the family after a year of idyllic living and three days later their father returns home drunker than he had ever been before. The event results in the family to move to their next semi-permanent location, this time with Dad’s family in the decrepit mining town of Welch. Where Mom’s Grandma and home were fairly akin to a palace fit for royalty, Welch and Erma seem to resemble the last stop before Hell. Rex’s mother is an abusive woman who molests Jeanette’s brother, Brian, just as she had once molested Rex. It becomes apparent that Rex’s problems with authority and foolhardy, blind optimism originate from his childhood abuse. The other denizens of Welch are not much better, and the kindest person is the local whore. “One thing about whoring, it put a chicken on the table.” (130) It is in this lonely area that Jeanette Walls grows up and loses her faith in her family’s living. She never forgives her father who has turned back to alcoholism, her mother is even more absent and blames her children for her lack of success, her siblings are miserable. However despite the despair, the Walls family holds one to their unfillable optimism. “’How about Hitler? What was his redeeming quality?’ ‘Hitler loved dogs,’ mom said without hesitation” (144). Even when moving into an equally depressing shack Optimism does not fail them. “’Count your blessings,’ Mom said, ‘there are people in Ethiopia who would kill for a place like this’… He planned to get to work on it right away following the blueprints for the glass castle….Seeing as this was our new home, Brian and I figured out how we’d make the best of it.” (153) Along with finding the silver lining the shining pinnacle of dreams prevails in the form of the Glass Castle. Jeanette Dreams of going to school and becoming a scientist, Lori dreams of escape, Dad dreams of money, Mom Dreams of fame. Their dreams do not cease but without the glamor of adventure their early childhood provided, it had now come time to do something of their situation.

Eventually reality requires Jeanette to dream bigger and move on. Three years after moving to welch she begins working for the school editor. Her parents fall into mental illnesses and as an outsider viewing their problems Jeanette vows to never be like them. “I swore to myself I would never be like mom” (208) Her Fathers unreliability and her Mother’s bouts of hysteria move Jeanette to take hold of the family and then later to apply for a job. Eventually Jeanette’s only solution is to move. After saving up an “escape fund” Jeanette and Lori hatch a plan where Lori would head over to New York to begin working as an artist. Eventually Lori heads off to New York while Jeanette stays behind to graduate. After successfully racking up her high school experience through excellent grades, countless extracurricular activities, and a moving force behind her school newspaper, Walls leaves Welch to finish high school and Graduate in New York where she would live with her sister. She lands an internship with the Phoenix and eventually becomes a full time reporter. Brian eventually follows Lori and Jeanette and later on the oppressive loneliness of Welch forces the remaining Walls’ to move out. While Jeanette becomes successful her parents become destitute, squatting in buildings and digging through trash. Eventually the memoirs come full circle and the reader is returned to the opening scene of Jeanette Walls reviewing her life story. And what she finds while sitting on her couch is that she is uncomfortable with her life because in order to survive the absolute chaos of her childhood she gave up even the good parts of that version of herself. “I wanted to leave everything from my past behind, even the good things, so I gave Maureen my geode.” (239). In the end Jeanette realizes that she spent h second half of her life running away from a fundamental part of herself and this was the reason for her unhappiness despite her more comfortable living. She had stopped running on optimism and instead began to run on the next deadline, the next paycheck, the next opportunity. She begins to realize that with the absence of hope, comfortable life was meaningless especially when bad things occurred you didn’t attempt to find a lighter side. The ball drops when the family is once again brought together, this time in a courtroom when Maureen is prosecuted for stabbing Mom. The family officially breaks apart after the event and months later Dad confides that he has been declared terminally ill. His inevitable Death convinces Jeanette to reconcile with her past and she divorces her husband, moves away, and begins her life once again, this time at peace with her Glass Castle.

In the end Jeanette Walls’ life is a series of downs highlighted by all the uplifting things normal people are blind to. Whether it was the discovery of a geode, the invention of an idea, or the blueprints of a glass castle, the moving force of hope allowed the Walls family to keep on keeping on even when most people would have long given up. It might have been ludicrous, it might have been ironic, and it might have been bleak, but nevertheless every moment was like when Lori sees through her glasses for the first time after a lifetime of severe shortsightedness. Likewise, everyone has their own glass castle, but not everyone has the ability to prevent it from shattering. Life is a collection of moments, memoirs, memories, and it is our job to stop every once in a while and enjoy the horizon.

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