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Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town -- and the family -- Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
January 09, 2006
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1011 of 1051 found the following review helpful:
True to Life Account Nov 13, 2005
By beckybramer I grew up in Welch, WV and was acquainted with Jeanette and Brian(Lori was older and Maureen was younger). I can attest that her harrowing account of growing up with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother in the coalfields of WV was as she says. This was a compelling read, all the more so, because it was about people and places I knew so well. As I read, I was filled with sorrow and shame because I was one of those people who didn't want to have close association with them because they were so different from me. I try to asuage my guilt by telling myself I saw things from a child's maturity level. I wish I could apologize and find myself wondering what would have happened if I had befriended Jeanette. She could have enriched my like tremendously. For those of you who doubt things could not have happened like it was written, don't. I knew it and I saw it, and to a degree, lived it. And as tragic as it was, it was true.
817 of 871 found the following review helpful:
WHAT A COURAGEOUS MEMOIR - - BRAVO! Feb 28, 2005
By andy behrman First, "The Glass Castle" is a real page turner - - I couldn't put it down and finished it in about four hours - - a record for me!
It's probably the most thoughtful and sensitive memoir I can ever remember reading - - told with such grace, kindness and fabulous sense of humor.
It's probably the best account ever written of a dysfunctional family -- and it must have taken Walls so much courage to put pen to paper and recount the details of her rather bizarre childhood - - which although it's like none other and is so dramatic - - any reader will relate to it. Readers will find bits and pieces of their own parents in Rex and Rose Mary Walls.
Her journey across the country, ending up in a poor mining town in West Virginia and then finally in New York City, is a fascinating tale of survival.
Her zest for life, even when eating margarine and sugar and bundled in a cardboard box with sweaters, coats and huddling with her pets, is unbelievably beautiful - - and motivating.
If I could give a book ten stars, it would be "The Glass Castle."
409 of 443 found the following review helpful:
Inferno to Paradiso (or close enough) Dec 14, 2005
By Thomas M. Seay Jeannette Wall's trek, as depicted in "Glass Castle", recalls Dante's
journey through Hell and eventual ascenscion to Paradise. The comparison may seem risibly over-dramatic, but just as Dante had to go through the experience of the Netherworlds before he could be led to Heaven, so, too, is Jeannette's eventual triumph the FRUIT of a childhood filled with poverty and, what some would call, parental neglect or even abuse.
In the opening section about Jeannette's early childhood, sort of the outer rungs of hell, we are introduced to the author's quirky family. Her father, Rex, is a brainy underachiever who cannot keep a job and has a bit of a "drinking situation".
The mother is an eccentric artist who cannot be bothered too much
by mundane tasks- you know, like cooking or cleaning the house. The children, all extremely bright, are often underfed and left to fend for themselves. However, if the parents have failings, they also have redeeming qualities. The children are immersed in an environment that values art, music, intellectual pursuits, freedom and self-sufficiency and spurns racism and all forms of bourgeois superficiality. Above all, the reader never doubts that Rex and his wife truly love the children. One gets the feeling throughout that Jeanette never doubts that either.
In any case, the early years are bittersweet. If there is squalor and hunger there is also humor and magic. Most of all, there is hope. The family frequently moves and, although that is frustrating, it also provided the background for a myth: that the next town would provide prosperity.
But then to Welch they did go! And, it is in this West Virginia town where her father grew up,the "Nation's Coal Bin", that Jeannette and the rest of the family descend into the lower regions of hell. All the problems are exacerbated. The father, having returned to the place he said he never would, drinks with abandon and applies more and more of the family's slim resources toward his habit. Jeanette resorts to scaveging trash barrels for sustenance and is humiliated for her tattered clothing. There is not water in the house for bathing and no heat in Winter. Swallowed by the appalachian mountains with only the two-lane US 52 out, you feel stuck. Even the pilgrim parents are unable to muster the strength to break the gravity of this place. With this immobility came the final destruction of the myth (that the family would move somewhere else and find prosperity) and, as a consequence, the destruction of hope. However, it is in this darkness that Jeannette finds her calling. She becomes a reporter for the "Maroon Wave", the Welch High School student newspaper. The rest of the book details how her dream to become a "high falutin" journalist led her to New York City and her current incarnation. Maybe not Paradiso, but close enough considering her formative years.
A number of components conflate to push Jeannette towards a succeful resolution. Certainly the positive legacy of her parents: culture, books, self-sufficiency, etc. But also the dire situation gave her a sense of urgency and the focus that comes with it: She had nothing to lose. She was lucky enough to have discovered early on a career path and did not have the leisure to ruminate ENDLESSLY on it.. This latter often brings self-doubts that paralyze youth. Unlike so many memoirs about unhappy childhoods, the author never plays the John Bradshaw card by irately denouncing her parents, nor does she try to facilely excuse them. Life is more complex than that and she understand that syzygys cannot be tampered with, lest you destroy the whole. You cant take eggs out of the cake.
On a personal note, I grew up in Welch, went to Welch High School and knew Jeannette (though not very well) who was two grades behind me. I have not seen her since High School. For those reviewers who expressed doubts about the authenticity of her story, I can tell you that at least the Welch part of the story rings true to my memory.
75 of 79 found the following review helpful:
One for Your Reading List. Nov 27, 2006
By Yours Truly I was grateful that the chapters are short in this disturbing memoir, because I could only take in a little at a time. It's difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional household than the one in which Walls grew up. What sets her book apart is the distinctive voice in which she narrates that dysfunction, and her growing awareness that she's entitled to a decent life.
We meet the fiesty Jeannette as a toddler, badly burned while cooking hot dogs on a stove for herself. No, she wasn't defying her mother's orders. She was simply taking care of herself in a household where both parents thumbed their noses at such simple conventions as regular meals, sound shelter, decent clothing, running hot water and protection from sexual predators. On one thing, though, they didn't scrimp: the children were taught to read at an early age. I'm convinced that held the key to their survival. Thanks to public libraries, Jeannette read the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie series before she entered school. It must have helped normalize the survivalist lifestyle that her parents adopted.
The difference is that it wasn't necessary. Rex, her father, was when sober an accomplished electrician and science maven. Her mother, Rose Mary, had a college degree but found teaching, like motherhood, an imposition on her life as an artist. The three older children--Lori, Jeannette and Bryan--functioned as a family within the family. The youngest, Maureen, grew dependent on the kindess of strangers and eventually set out on her own.
This is a uniquely American story that wanders all over the landscape from California and Arizona to West Virginia and New York. Although we see the cruelty with which these neglected chilidren are treated, we also see the people who help them and their own protection of their family. As Jeannette views it, the worst possible thing would be separation from her siblings, and I'm inclined to agree with her. Certainly, this book tests my assumption that children get their values from their parents. The Walls children formed theirs in opposition to their parents' in many ways, but they also managed to hang onto the dogged independence and sense of wonder that they admired in Mom and Dad.
I hope this book will enter the list of child survival stories that in my mind includes Tobias Wolfe's "Duke of Deception" and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." Certainly I would recommend it for readers everywhere who are convinced they were deprived.
45 of 47 found the following review helpful:
Great memoir Jul 02, 2006
By M. Hudgens
The author describes her fascinating childhood in which her family moves around the country, following her father's dreams, staying ahead of law enforcement and bill collectors, and living the family's carefree attitude. While her father's dreams are what sustains the family for many years, slowly the four children become disillusioned as their father continually fails to provide all of the things he promises them. The father's inability to hold down a job and stay sober forces the family to live in destitution, and while the mother is continually writing and painting, this does not put food on the table. The four children learn to fend for themselves, take care of each other, and determine what is really important in their lives.
Quote: "As Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castle's foundation slowly filled with garbage."
This was a really excellent memoir, which raised excellent questions about family, prioritization, dreams, reality, and the power of perseverance to overcome whatever challenges a person faces. The author relates her inner struggle when she wants desperately to believe in her father's big dreams, while having to scrounge in trash cans to find enough food. Although it was a bit slow in the beginning, things picked up rapidly. The book moved quickly, particularly because it is organized into short chapters. I thought the most significant portions related to the siblings holding together while they were growing up and making the most of difficult circumstances.