“I had broken one of our unspoken rules: we were all supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.”
Jeanette Walls’s New York Times bestselling memoir The Glass Castle is an extraordinary tale of resilience and reclamation, looking into a family both deeply dysfunctional and uniquely exhilarating.
When reflecting on the book, I couldn’t help but think of excerpts from the quote by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” Walls’s memoir is perfectly summed up in this quote; a memoir so tragic and yet endearing, readers can only understand it through what is whispered during the book rather than what is said.
The idea of a glass castle evokes the architecture of fantasy and luxury. That’s how the Walls’s parents tried to make life out to be: one big adventure built on the premise of non-existent prospects. Rex Walls, the charismatic father, promised his kids for years that all their ‘adventures’ were leading up to one big mansion he would single-handedly design and build himself. Instead what we see is a string of drunken escapades by a severely alcoholic man, an extensive line of poverty, unconventional educational tactics and a nomadic lifestyle spent running away rather than to.
As a child, Walls so distinctly writes that she “lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire.” When sober, Jeannette’s father charismatically captured his children’s imagination and taught them Physics and Geology. But when drunk, he was destructive and disparaging. Her mother was a free spirit who denied the responsibilities of parenthood and chose unemployment and consequently, hunger for her family. We travel with the Walls from one bleak, dusty Southwestern mining town to another, all the while meeting racist hillbillies, abusive grandparents and neighbourhood child-molesters.
Rex Walls’s dream of a glass castle is materialised as a series of nightmares for the Walls kids. We see three-year-old Jeanette so severely burned while boiling hot dogs that she spent six weeks in the hospital before her father ‘rescued’ her against the nurse’s orders. We agonize with older sister Lori as she suffers convulsions at the bite of a scorpion at four-years-old. We ache with younger brother, Brian, as he freezes in his ‘outside bedroom’. We wince with Jeanette as she is groped by her uncle and hold on tightly when she promises to protect her baby sister, Maureen.
Along the way, we learn unconventionally about the health advantages of drinking impurified ditch water and how to use a pistol. Because of their reality, the Walls children are forced to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually escaped, one by one, to New York. The best part about Wall’s memoir is her illusive ease that makes us see just how the kids were convinced that their tempestuous life was a glorious adventure. After all, with the planet Venus as a Christmas present from her father, how could Jeanette’s life be anything but magnificent?
Walls has a telling memory for detail and an appealing flow to her writing. Even at the end of the book, as the glass castle façade has long been shattered, a grown-up Jeanette can toast graciously and optimistically with her mother and siblings; “Life with your father was never boring.”