The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is memoir about what can be done
By BILL DUNCAN
Memoirs can sometimes be tedious to read, but not "The Glass Castle," by Jeannette Walls. From the moment the story begins when Walls, a successful writer living on Park Avenue in New York City, is headed for a socialite party and looks out the window of her taxi cab to see her mother rummaging through a dumpster.
If that doesn’t get your attention, the pages upon pages of flash back to her growing up years in a dysfunctional family and how she achieved success in spite of it will keep your reading until the end when her eccentric mother, Rose Mary, raises her glass in a toast to her late husband, Rex, saying: "Life with your father was never boring."
Neither is Jeannette’s memoir of the Walls family. Jeannette admits that along the way she was both proud and ashamed of her family. For years she hid her story from others by telling make believe stories about her mother and father — a couple of characters that will make you laugh, cry and become angry from one paragraph to another. Jeannette only decided to tell her story publicly after her husband, John, convinced her that everyone who is interesting has a past.
Jeannette’s unconventional parents include the mother who would paint and read Shakespeare aloud while letting such domestic chores as meal preparation go undone and her father, who was an ingenious liar and a hopeless alcoholic. He was an intellectual power house, but a falling down drunk that allowed his family to live in poverty — even go hungry.
Jeannette is one of four children, three girls and a boy. She is the second oldest, but the one determined to succeed and she knew the only way to do that was to flee from the family hovel in Welch, West Virginia. Her older sister, Lori had left earlier and worked as a waitress in New York City.
Jeannette was still in high school, but it was there she found her niche — journalism — while working on the school newspaper. The school paper was printed at the offices of the daily newspaper and Jeannette writes, "I loved the newsroom’s purposeful atmosphere. Teletype machines clattered against the wall as spools of paper carrying news from around the world piled up on the floor."
This was the dream she would pursue and at the end of the school year, she had saved $100 and, with the encouragement of her sister, she traveled by bus to New York City. There is a poignant scene in which her father tries to talk her out of going, but when she comforts her mother, saying, "Don’t be sad, Mom, I’ll write," her mother answers: "I’m not upset because I’ll miss you. I’m upset because you get to go to New York and I’m stuck here. It’s not fair."
Years later the author would discover her mother owned property valued at more than a million dollars, but for some personal quirk she had refused to sell it to rescue her destitute family.
A short time after Jeannette arrives in New York City, her writing talents got her a newspaper job and success soon followed. She and her sister Lori lifted their two younger siblings from the poverty their parent’s neglect had created and brought them to New York.
Without warning Rex and Rose Mary arrived in New York and Rex explains that this was a permanent move because "we need family." Neither wants to work and eventually end up as homeless street people squatting in an abandoned building. When Jeannette saw her mother digging in the dumpster, she panics for fear her mother might see her and "call out my name and that someone on the way to the party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out."
The title "Glass Castle" comes from her father’s dream of building a glass castle for his family, a dream that ended when the father died at age 59 in the squalor in whcih he had chosen to live.
Jeannette’s husband, John Taylor. is also a writer. She writes and reports news for channel MSNBC.
Hers is a captivating story that needs to be told as an object lesson in today’s society. It shows how efforts all of the Walls children struggled and succeeded in pulling themselves out of depths of the poverty in which their parent’s willingly wallowed.
(Bill Duncan is editor of The Senior Times. He also writes a weekly column that appears on the Opinion Page every Thursday.)