The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls


Scribner, 2005. ISBN 074324754X.
Reviewed by Janet Caplan
Posted on 03/15/2007

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships

This award-winning memoir by Jeannette Walls is a testament to the idea that anything is possible if you work hard enough. She did exactly that in escaping her truly dysfunctional, difficult home-life at about the age of seventeen, when she made her way to New York. While living in New York with her older sister, the first to flee the nest, she finished high school and graduated from Barnard before establishing herself as a journalist and contributor to MSNBC.

The book's title is actually the name of the dream home that Jeannette's brilliant, alcoholic father, Rex, plans to build. "Dream" is the operative word here as Rex is a man who moves from place to place, dream to dream, drink to drink, dragging his wife, Rose Mary, and their four children along for the ride. He disappears for days on end, cannot hold a job, and even steals from his children in order to feed his habits. Amazingly, Rex had found in Rose Mary a soul mate. As someone living in her own dreamlike state, she not only condoned but enabled his irrational behavior and showed herself to be as irresponsible as Rex. What these two free spirits produce in the way of offspring is nothing short of a miracle. Their four children not only raise themselves, they manage to keep their parents afloat for years. Roles are reversed as we read how, in spite of parental negligence, Jeannette and her siblings manage to get through school, work any number of odd jobs to put food on the table and bail their parents out of countless predicaments. This family experiences poverty at its indescribable worst. For the most part, the undisputed cause is the irresponsibility and lack of any sense of reality on the part of Rex and Rose Mary. After the children have grown and left the family, Rex and Rose Mary follow them to New York, where they choose to live as homeless people on the streets of the city. This underscores their disconnection from the real world.

As we learn throughout the book, some clear alternatives were available to the Walls parents. Rose Mary owned land in Texas, which turned out to be worth about $1,000,000. But she wouldn't sell it to clothe and feed her destitute family because it was more important to "keep that land in the family." Rose Mary goes so far as to ask Jeannette to borrow the money from her husband so that she can buy out her brother's share of the family land after his death. At another point, Jeannette and her brother find a 2-carat diamond ring long buried on their property; it could only be traced to the now deceased, former owner of the property. Rather than sell the ring and use the money for essentials, Rose Mary chooses to keep it as "...it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food."

In spite of the family life that Jeannette and her siblings have been dealt, they not only love and take care of their parents, they succeed in their own lives. This memoir exudes humor, love, warmth and almost a shrug of the shoulders at the family life created by their parents. It is a breath of fresh air in terms of the "me as victim" scenario painted by many today. Jeannette Walls has created a beautifully written and forgiving memoir.

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