Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.
The opening of Jeannette Walls’s memoir shows the narrator as an adult who sees her mother scavenging through trash in New York. It’s an apt beginning to a book that chronicles the trials of a family through the eyes of a little girl who grows up in desperate poverty. Yet what’s startling is not the fact that Walls has to scour the trash in the school bathroom or cafeteria to find something to eat or that the family has to use a bucket as a toilet because their house doesn’t have plumbing, but the way the author captures the innocence of a girl who sees these things as a normal way of life.
There are no villains in this memoir with the exception of a paternal grandmother named Erma, who is cold-hearted and a child molester. The narrator’s mother is a struggling artist, a painter and a writer, who holds to a sense of values that aesthetics and good manners matter despite the reality of living with an alcoholic, a man unable to provide the barest subsistence to his family. The narrator’s father is a charming, anger-prone, intellectual who loves his family, but he is a self-destructive man addicted to booze and is blind to the devastation his actions have on his family. Jeannette Walls conveys the family’s story with a refreshing lack of blame. Because she doesn’t wallow in self-pity and doesn’t cast the finger of blame, the reader is drawn into this family’s plight.
Walls’s language is pared down, not minimalistic, but certainly not showy. Her prose is that of a reporter on a field assignment within her own family, capturing the nuances of the family’s dynamics through dialogue, actions, inactions, and short scene snippets. Most of her chapters are only a few pages long, and her lens is that of a participant and observer of her family’s behavior.
Some of the most resonant scenes involve the narrator and her father, Rex. The man cannot afford presents for his children, but through his knowledge of astronomy, manages to give them their own personal stars in the night sky. Walls claims the shining planet Venus as her very own gift from her dad. At the zoo, Rex ignores the safety rules by going right up to a Cheetah inside its enclosure to let the animal lick popcorn butter from his daughter’s hand. Rex takes his teenage girl to a bar and allows her to be groped by a man he is hustling at pool. This incident destroys the narrator’s last vestige of hope that her father will take care of her. Later, as a young adult living in New York, the narrator informs her homeless father that she is dropping out of college because she can no longer afford the tuition. A week later, her dad provides the money she needs for school through poker winnings.
Jeannette Walls captures the essence of her family in her memoir. It is a book filled with real people, with foibles and insecurities, humor and humanity, laughter and tragedy, sprinkled with a dash of charm and a pinch of wonder. And readers experience this world through the eyes of an engaging and precocious narrator who sees her family with honesty, courage, and love.