the glass castle book review

the glass castle book review

The Glass Castle: A Compelling Memoir

1. Introduction

The Walls’ life is dominated by the father figure and offers the foundation and shelter, providing the glass castle as shelter but also as an ongoing symbol of his promises to change and provide a better life for their family. Walls frames the construction of the glass castle as a time in her life that certainly did not seem like the worst thing. She admired the intelligence and creativity of her father and loved the idea of building a “prospector’s dream house.” The only problem being that it stayed as a dream house and did not develop into anything real. Walls’ family faced living conditions of homelessness and poverty despite her father’s intelligence and potential for a good job. Fire and hunger were two contrasting elements of the Walls’ life, from the things Walls wanted to do with her life and the person she wanted to become, to the unacceptable living conditions and lack of food, and the necessity for survival depicted by her mother’s accident of deserting a pie in a fight with her daughter for the last bite.

Walls opens her memoir with a scene of herself at age three standing on a chair over the stove, catching fire to cook hotdogs all by herself. In illustrating her earliest memory, Walls sets the tone for the sort of person she is and the sort of life she has lived. “I was on fire,” she says to herself, describing the ambition and passion her father always told her she had. “I was going to start a hotdog roast, and I also think I was hoping to get a little practice at cooking hotdogs, seeing as how it seemed to me that it would be useful.” Walls’ ingenious nature and desire to do things on her own set a tone for her life. Fire and hunger, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, are recurring images throughout her memoir that reflect her desire to succeed in life. Fire is in reference to the idea that she had to fend for herself and be independent, and the hunger is for a stable, normal life, which she never quite achieves. Her father Rex instilled these values of independence, self-sufficiency, and ambition into her head but was never able to fulfill the role model part of it himself due to his drinking habit.

2. Captivating Storytelling

But the storytelling’s excellence isn’t what finally drives this memoir about destitution and unsteady family love. It isn’t just that Walls has a strange anecdote for every juncture and unexpected details to spare, involving brief appearances from a few outlandish minor characters – a Freudian psychiatrist to whom Jeannette loses her virginity, a bigoted mountain house community who form an ‘anti-Hoover society’. Walls has the rare ability to look back at her world through her own young eyes, recreating that feeling of confused appreciation of the harsh reality around her. Early parts of the book buzz with excitement at the freedom and necessity of the family’s nomadic presence, even with hungry and filthy as the children often were, and the spiritedness of the prose makes the incredulous moments that much more affecting. Walls’ story thrums to a rhythm of its own and resonates with the reader long after these final pages.

It is not difficult to see what has made “The Glass Castle” a bestseller for so many years. Jeanette Walls tells the story of her moving and eventful childhood with a journalistic author’s precision, finding the extraordinary in the typical, the definitive moment in the messy throwaway seconds. Her mother might have been a disinterested parent at best, but Walls never stops working to comprehend her motivations, and the approved moments of love and fulfillment suffocate the failings of a mother who can’t load her kids a lunch lest she steals the food from someone else’s fridge. Even the most shameful stories are shared with nothing but unvarnished truth, both lovingly and legitimately. Walls never simplifies either parent; they remain rugged and untidy figures, father a playful optimist with inadequate sense or responsible thought, mother a cold blend of hedonistic aspiration and insecurity.

3. Themes Explored

This book explores the complex and often difficult bonds among family members. The memoir is full of stories of a happy, inquisitive child who grows into a woman who must learn to take care of herself and her siblings as best she can. In spite of their hardships, Jeannette and her siblings retain a sense of loyalty and responsibility for their parents throughout their lives. That responsibility often manifests itself in the way the children attempt to help their parents financially. However, in taking on the role of the responsible parent, the children often switch roles with their parents, a theme that is repeated throughout the memoir. Because of her upbringing, Jeannette feels old beyond her years, and that she has lost touch with her childhood. This becomes most evident when, as a successful adult, she goes to pick her mother up for lunch and realizes that her mother had been living as a homeless person. The idea of the Glass Castle is a metaphor that symbolizes all of the unfulfilled dreams that Rex has for his family. He spends much of his time daydreaming and developing plans for the castle. It is a beautiful structure made of glass, a place where he can do work with his engineering and the children can sharpen the weapons and fire and finally in a silver mining town in Battle Mountain build the castle, and it equipped with all the modern luxuries. Rex promises time and again that he will build the castle for his family, but due to poverty and alcoholism, that promise is never kept. Although it’s a very unstable and impractical home, the idea behind the Glass Castle represents the love that the Walls family have and the hope and dreams that they have to be better off in the future.

4. Impact and Relevance

In the lively interview at the end of the book, Walls recounts an exchange she had with her mother. Erasing a fencer scar from Walls’ mind, Rose Mary asks her, “You have to write a story about me that’s different from the truth.” Walls has written just such a story. By reshaping her deeply problematic childhood into ‘fiction’, Walls has squarely aimed at consumable and poignant family melodrama. The Glass Castle’s journey to bestseller list and film deal is but a logical conclusion to the narrative constructed within it. But like her mother, Walls has succeeded at spinning a yarn that, while artful and beguiling, has a ‘truth’ that roils beneath its surface. Walls never lets her parents off the hook. The children may forgo victimizing themselves, but Rex and Rose Mary are never able to evade our reproach. In what she has now begrudgingly accepted as a memoir, Walls has lobbed an indictment at the concept of artifice itself. By touching our emotions with a narrative that is quite literally about the manipulative nature of narrative itself, she forces to reconcile the conflicting veracities of the story. This book is not just about a ‘great tale’ well told. In many ways it’s about the astonishing extent of which we will forgive and even con ourselves when faced with suffering and denial. The Glass Castle’s real triumph lies in the undistorted record it bears of human failure and resilience. The ‘truth’ it would strive to tell is in the end, the proper one.

5. Conclusion

The Glass Castle concludes with a rhetorical question posed by Jeannette’s mother: “You want to tell me dreams are only dreams, but dreams shape reality” (p. 288). This question and the memoir as a whole challenge Cartesian dualism, the distinction of mind and matter, believing that the content of the mind can have an effect on the events of reality. Mother’s painting, whether abstraction or a portrait of her incarnation, itself is a materialized dream, shaping her will of freedom and happiness, despite the impracticality of the means by which she hopes to achieve it. This painting and the Walls family are representative of the transformative power of valuing imagination. The memoir demonstrates the resiliency of children using their imagination as a tool to escape oppressive or impoverished environments. In the children’s “skedaddle” to the mountains following a scarring incident of negligence, Jeanette says, “We felt like fledgling addiction physicians and fled as if our lives depended on it… I can still get myself good and lost and dreamy” (p. 52-53). The importance of this event to the author, demonstrated by its vivid portrayal and reliving, has left an enduring understanding that the mountains were worth more than the meal the children’s absence cost their parents. The correlation of addiction to escape is not immediately obvious, but Jeanette implies an addiction to freedom, whereby the mountains are a placebo and stimulus bundled into one. The import of this severing the children’s addiction to their parents’ dysfunctional lifestyle fuels Jeanette and her siblings’ ascent to a more socially acceptable living standard than their parents. This mental creation of a better future is integral to Jeanette’s eventual transcendence of her class origin, reflected in her and Brian’s attendance of Welch’s upscale private school. At an earlier age, Lori uses her imagination and resourcefulness to extract sustenance from trash cans after recognizing her empty hunger is the result of parental neglect. While the children need not embrace literal garbage collection to satiate their hunger, this act marks the beginning of a more responsible and independent lifestyle than their parents. This consistent dream of breaking the cycle of poverty has left Jeanette successful in transcending her troubled past, so that she may write a memoir that challenges traditional notions of poverty and family.

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