Ryan Chartrand

“The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, follows a midwestern family through their journeys and travels across the United States during the years their children are growing up. The novel, a memoir, progresses through a series of anecdotes that tell the story of the author’s youth. The second out of four children, Walls recalls her murky past in an uncannily delightful way.

With a set of circumstances such as theirs, the Walls children were forced to become independent at an early age. For starters, there are their parents. Walls’ father, Rex, is in many ways both the best and worst thing that happens to her. On one hand, he is extremely creative, and brings out the inventive side of his middle daughter. An intelligent man, he rarely misses an opportunity to teach his children something about the world, and inspires them to do something great. In fact, the title of the book comes from his dream of building a “glass castle” for his family, even when they were wallowing in extreme poverty.

However, he is also the town drunk. When he drinks, he loses all of his fatherly instincts and brilliance. His alcoholism also interferes with his ability to keep a steady job. Instead of brining home an income, he brings shame, embarrassment, and much anger to his family. Often disappearing for days or weeks at a time, his children come to learn that they can’t depend on him.

Walls’ mother is also emotionally unavailable. Once an aspiring artist, she resents her children because motherhood has forced her ambitions to the backseat, and is constantly reminding the kids of it. Besides being selfishly bitter, she is also startlingly impractical. She does little to fill her role as an adult in the home, refusing to work even when money is tight and generally forcing most of the household pressures onto her children. Once, when her son and daughter find a diamond ring in the backyard, that they intend to sell, she decides to keep it, to “boost her self-esteem,” instead of using the money to feed her nearly starving family.

Perhaps even more detrimental than their unavailable parents to the Walls children’s rocky upbringing is the family’s squalid living conditions. Getting by on little to no money proves to be a challenge that the children take on courageously and cleverly. Still, the family never makes it above the poverty level and they suffer because of it. From not having winter coats, to sleeping in cardboard boxes, to being knocked out by the school bully for being poor, the family can never rest easy.

Gratefully, the author doesn’t end the story with her family in dire poverty; the horrid circumstances described serve only as a starting point for the Walls’s family. This book is much more than a pity party. The thread of dreaming of better days is carried through the entire novel, and there are moments of hope throughout. Also, the novel takes an inspirational turn at the end.

“The Glass Castle” is similar to other recent memoirs, in that it outlines a childhood of pain and confusion and the protagonist’s subsequent triumph over horrible odds. Where it differs from these sometimes excruciating tomes is in its delivery: Walls doesn’t come across as bitter or world-worn as some survivor-authors do. Instead, she looks back at her childhood with a forgiving fondness that causes the reader to enjoy the book, rather than weep through the entire thing.

If the book has a fault, it is its overall simplicity and predictability. Although each chapter has a valuable place in the timeline of Walls’ early life, the overall picture seems to lack the depth it could have had. There is no surprising twist, hidden meaning, or insightful ending. After awhile, it seems just like “another good story.” However, some might say that its simplicity is actually the book’s greatest strength. The objective of the book isn’t to surprise its readers, but to inspire them through the author’s personal experiences. The readers are encouraged to take from the book what they will; nothing is explicit.

Walls is a strong storyteller and the descriptions of what she overcame as a child are simply amazing. Her detailed settings and characters alone make this a good read. Plus, much of the book is funny. All of the elements of a good story are there. If a reader is looking for an encouraging account of triumph over hardship without the overbearing sadness, The Glass Castle is for him or her.

Buyer’s Tip: Don’t read the back cover; it gives too much away.

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