Friday, August 23, 2013

The Glass Castle Review

The Glass Castle


It's not often a writer can relate a painful memoir with unabashed good humor, wit, and most especially, freedom from self-pity. In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls does just that, leaving us with some of the most memorable scenes and eccentric characters to come from a modern memoirist in the last decade.

Jeannette is the second of Rex and Rose Mary Walls' four children: after Lori, and before Brian and Maureen. Rex is a charismatic man, an entrepreneur of sorts, who happens to indulge in "a little bit" of drinking; his wife is a smart, free-spirited artist. We quickly realize Rex and Mary are ill-equipped to parent -- or to fend for themselves for that matter. As they continuously fail to define their own lives, they invariably define the lives of their children as a seemingly never-ending struggle to survive.

The story unfolds with a heartrending scene in which three-year-old Jeannette is trying to cook some hot dogs, and in doing so, sets herself on fire. After spending some time in the hospital, with burns requiring skin grafts, Rex decides to "rescue" Jeannette from the hospital, and the family sets off for life on the road. For a time, they live in the desert, often moving from small town to small town; the children are considered outsiders and struggle to fit in.

Christmas is a holiday they celebrate a week after everyone else, gathering tossed Christmas decorations, and taking advantage of after-holiday sales. One of the most touching passages in the book is when Rex takes his children out to the desert and lets each pick out a star to claim as their Christmas gift. Jeannette points out that stars are not tangible, and therefore can't belong to anyone and can't be gifted. Rex romanticizes her logic by pointing out that stars are the best gifts, as no one has claim to them, and stars will outlast any gift other children might receive.

Unfortunately, as time goes on, Rex's drinking only gets worse. Rose Mary resents the idea of taking a job. And as the children grow older, they realize their parents are never going to change their ways. The siblings begin to plot their escape. From here, Jeanette traces her path toward achieving success against the odds and coming to terms with her past.

It is striking and inspirational to read about someone who has lead such a turbulent life and still managed to make it out the other end, all the better.