It’s a running joke that there’s never any food in my parents’ house. My mother lacks the foresight necessary for adequate grocery shopping, although even when my mother was at her most Hubbard, I never had to eat exclusively grapes for three weeks or pick through other kids’ discarded lunches in the bathroom garbage so that I could eat that day.
Sound like the makings of an Oprah special? Absolutely. But thankfully, The Glass Castle doesn’t read this way. This absolutely captivating memoir isn’t about self-pity or finger pointing, but simply documents an extraordinary childhood at once rich in imagination and adventure and bitingly impoverished.
Of course it is Jeannette’s parents who created this bipolar existence for their children. She has a brilliant and charming, but alcoholic father who took his daughter inside a leopard cage or demon hunting in the desert, but also wouldn’t hold a job and stole his daughters’ meager savings to finance his addiction. Her mother is a free-spirited artist who appreciates learning and beauty but who disdains regular work and domestic duties.
As we follow Jeannette from the age of three through her teenage years, we watch as the Walls parents lose their magical glow, and the children are forced to fill the vacuum of responsibility their parents have created. It would be tempting to cast the parents as villains here, but Jeannette takes care to present all sides of her conflicted parents with a critical eye and a compassionate heart.
Though the Walls children are bullied, hungry, and poor, Jeanette never complains, instead illustrating the creativity and courage which they depended upon to survive. And while their parents neglected them, they also taught their children important lessons about the value of learning, mastering their fears, avoiding conformity, and relying on their wit and imagination.
Walls is a journalist by trade, and shows both tremendous restraint and an eye for detail, making the writing a pleasure to read. Combine that with a series of events right out of a Miriam Toews novel and you can see why this memoir has received so much praise. Start to finish I was hopelessly ensnared in this extraordinary tale of a childhood I’m thankful to experience second hand, but wouldn’t for a second want to miss.