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Monday, September 13, 2010


What a strange memoir Jeannette Walls writes in The Glass Castle. Here is the extraordinary story of a family that is incredibly broken. Jeannette’s parents are impressive and abusive at the same time, and while their eccentricities may be personal choices, dragging children into these choices can be seen as nothing short of abuse. Yet, amazingly, though Rose Mary and Rex Walls emerge as villains, they are not villains the reader hates.

Through Walls’ matter-of-fact, unsentimental style devoid of pop-psychology and analysis, she accomplishes the feat of allowing her parents to be real and free of condemnation while she tells a story filled with horrific events including a hasty getaway where her father blithely tosses their cat out the window of his moving car, a severe burning resulting in skin grafts and six weeks in a hospital because at four years old Jeannette is left unattended to boil her own hotdogs, and a lack of parental concern when she is sexually molested by a neighbor and then later by her uncle The horrific and inexcusable experiences Rose Mary and Rex Walls foisted upon their children they called “adventures,” and for a long while Jeannette, her brother and two sisters believed that was the exciting truth. A reader, however, is dumb-struck with disbelief.

As horrible and unsuited to parenthood as the Wallses were, their children grew in resilience rather than in hatred. Rose Mary and Rex were educated people who chose the life they led. Though possessing a teaching degree, Rose Mary saw herself as an artist and rebelled against working to earn a living. Rex lost jobs as an engineer. When Rex’s drinking problem left the family unable to buy food, Jeannette resorted to rummaging in school garbage bins for discarded lunches. As teenagers the children formed a plan to escape to New York and to help one another escape as each graduated from high school. They worked and saved the necessary money only to have Rex steal it from them. Undaunted, they began anew, and they prevailed.

In the end the three oldest children succeeded in breaking away and making good lives for themselves. Even then they did not push their parents aside.

Jeannette Walls’ astounding recollections, her spare style, and her lack of judgmental attitude allow the reader to enter the fanciful world of the glass castle Rex Walls tantalizingly created for his children. Yet the reader also sees the horrors and abuse he mesmerized them into accepting.

I found it difficult to visualize some of the events Walls records, and I was amazed at this memoir’s resolution. Walls has also written Half Broke Horses, the story of her grandmother whom we briefly meet in The Glass Castle but whose negative influence on Rex is strongly suggested. I think the somewhere down the road, I will be traveling with that book too. There is obviously so much more to Walls’ story.

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