Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle isn’t exactly the lightest kind of summer read but who says summer reading has to be light.
The truth is I did find Wall’s memoir of her childhood growing up moving from town to town with her peripatetic parents and her brother and sisters quite refreshing for the first quarter of the book. Her mother is an artist and her father is a brilliantly imaginative man who uses the power of imagination and the innocence of childhood to help his children believe that their world of increasingly grinding poverty is a magical and special place.
The Wall children, not knowing anything but the life they have, for a long time believe that while other children have Christmas trees they have stars in the sky, while other children live in homes with running water, food and beds, they one day will have a Glass Castle, a home their father promises to build.
But as their mother spirals into depression and their father into alcoholism the family’s troubles increase. When they settle into Rex Wall’s hometown in Virginia the parents leave their children to fend almost entirely for themselves.
While other children eat lunch, the Wall kids scour garbage cans to find something to fill their stomachs. Beyond their emotional and addiction issues there is a selfishness to the Wall parents that is often shocking. Mary Wall secretly eats a chocolate bar while her children starve and Rex’s drunken charm finally reveals its true character when he sends his teenage daughter Jeanette off to a gambling buddy’s apartment to potentially pay off a debt.
Ultimately the image of the Glass Castle which is sustained as a beacon of hope throughout the book, is finally broken when the place where it is to be built is turned into a mountain of the Wall family’s refuse. Dying to leave home, Jeanette’s older sister moves to New York as a teenager to find her fortunes as an artist and Jeanette follows soon after to pursue her love of journalism. Jeanette’s father begs her to stay saying he’ll finally get to work on building their dream home but her childhood illusions of her father are finally broken and she moves to join her sister knowing that the Glass Castle exists only in Rex’s imagination.
Ultimately the entire Wall family end up in New York. As dysfunctional as this family is, the one thing all the Wall’s children end up doing is pursueing their life long dreams. While their parents end up living on the streets and squatting, Jeanette, her sister and her brother fall successfully into their respective careers.
As difficult as parts of this book is to read and as angry and you might become at Rex and Mary Wall for their crazy selfishness, it does strike me as amazing that these kids managed as well as they did. They survived and then some.
Jeanette Walls does a great job of balancing the emotional territory of telling a very difficult personal story without engaging in armchair psychoanalysis or even judgement. It’s clear that her early life was very difficult but she also brings to life the magic and the power of her father’s imagination and in that way the book serves as a kind of tribute to Rex Wall.
Check out Jeanette Walls on Youtube discussing The Glass Castle.