Book Review: The Glass Castle
Posted May 19, 2010on:
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Scribner, 2005, 288 pp.
This book unfolds the simultaneous story of an unraveling and a piecing together, a coming apart and a unification. Walls’ memoir tells the story of her childhood, which is the unraveling of her parents’ mental health, the piecing together of her perception of what is really going on, the coming apart of any sense of stability or care, and the coming together of Walls’ own strength and fortitude and identity to escape and make a life for herself.
The account begins on Park Avenue in New York, as Walls rides in a taxi on her way to a party. She sees her mother digging through a dumpster. The story unfolds how her parents ended up there, and she didn’t. It’s the story of how she discovered her childhood experience was not normal, and how she and her siblings survived and eventually thrived.
What’s striking about the earliest chapters of the book is the matter-of-fact tone Walls takes while recounting horrific stories of pain and neglect. She describes injuries, hunger and inattention in her own life with a sense of distance, almost like a third-person narrator. It is impossible to tell if her distance equates to a necessary emotional distance from the pain or a healing and forgiveness from the dysfunction. I found myself getting angry and outraged on Walls’ behalf, because she did not express those things herself.
Some outrage does emerge as she matures in the story. It is this anger and indignation that eventually propels Walls and her siblings to leave home. It is the development of anger and separation from her parents, especially her father, that saves her.
This separation is never easy and never complete. It feels crushing for her to leave home because it is a rejection of all her father, whom she loves in spite of it all. Walls’ writing somehow manages to shield us from the heat of her emotions while connecting us to them, so that we can empathize both with her love and her need to leave. She does not write her book to punish her parents, or to work out her issues with them, or to offer moralization, or to tell a story of heroic overcoming. She just tells the story because it is her story, and it is compelling.