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"I had no idea what my life would be like then, but as I gathered up my schoolbooks and walked out the door, I swore to myself that it would never be like Mom's, that I would not be crying my eyes out in an unheated shack in some godforsaken holler." - Jeannette Walls

"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening (party), when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster ... She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill ... To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City ... I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat." - Jeannette Walls

THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls is the second-best book I've read this year to date, the best being Still Alice by Lisa Genova.

Rose Mary and Rex Walls were married in 1956. Over the next several years, they had four children - daughters Lori, Jeannette and Maureen and son Brian. Anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian individualists frequently on the run from something, the couple refused to enter the societal mainstream even to the extent of supplying their children with the conventionally acceptable American upbringing that stipulates freedom from hunger and the provision of adequate shelter and clothing. THE GLASS CASTLE is Jeanette's poignant and powerful memoir of growing up emotionally loved but materially deprived.

From Jeannette's narrative, it's soon apparent that her parents are gifted and intelligent human beings. Indeed, Rex, who's self-taught and knowledgeable about subjects that would challenge many university graduates, reads "Los Alamos Science" and "The Journal of Statistical Physics" and becomes interested in the Chaos Theory. Rex's mind is constantly ablaze with technically sophisticated plans and enrichment schemes, the former including designing The Glass Castle, an energy self-sufficient family home to be built of glass. However, Rex's rebellious streak against society, complicated by alcoholism, dooms him to a succession of failed blue-collar jobs and petty confrontations with the law that keep the Walls constantly on the move from California to Nevada to Arizona to West Virginia to New York City. In the Southwest, the family lives in a succession of dilapidated buildings in isolated, desert mining towns until Rose Mary inherits a home from her mother located in Phoenix, where life for Jeannette and her siblings is relatively good. Then Rex again becomes unemployed and the Walls move to the decaying coal mining town of Welch, WV, where Rex grew up. In Welch, the family's living conditions bottom out when they take up residence in a wretched, unheated, leaky, unplumbed shanty on stilts built on the side of a mountain. Here, the children don't even have enough to eat. Jeannette describes the experience of scavenging food at school:

"When other girls came in (the girls' restroom) and threw away their lunch bags in the garbage pails, I'd go retrieve them. I couldn't get over the way kids tossed out all this perfectly good food: apples, hard-boiled eggs, packages of peanut-butter crackers, sliced pickles, half-pint cartons of milk, cheese sandwiches with just one bite taken out because the kid didn't like the pimentos in the cheese. I'd return to the (toilet) stall and polish off my tasty finds."

I've had occasion to read memoirs by authors recalling happier upbringings: Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid by Jerry Spinelli, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood by Susan Allen Toth, Wait Till Next Year: Recollections of a 50's Girl to a Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham. In the early pages of THE GLASS CASTLE, I had to ask myself, "Is this a parody?" But one couldn't make up the events that Jeannette relates.

What's remarkable about Jeannette's story is her lack of bitterness towards her parents. Only on a couple of occasions does she even hint at laying blame on them for irresponsibility and negligence. Besides, her love for them endures. To me, and perhaps other readers with more "normal" childhoods, Rex's and Rose Mary's treatment of their offspring was neglect verging on abuse.

The fact that Jeannette and her siblings apparently grew up to be well-adjusted and, in the author's case, happily married and professionally and financially successful, is evidence for the resiliency of the human spirit. But, as you read THE GLASS CASTLE, you will perhaps weep and/or rage for the Walls children.

During their Phoenix period, Rex took Jeannette, whom he'd nicknamed "Mountain Goat", to the city zoo. There, led across a low fence by her Dad to get closer to a cage, Jeannette's palm was licked by a captive cheetah.
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on 9 November 2016
Imagine the embarrassment of sitting in a taxi which is stuck in traffic on the way to a posh party and spotting your homeless, dirty, unkempt mother in the street rooting through the bins. This is what happens to Jeanette Walls at the start of The Glass Castle - an autobiographical account of growing up in a dysfunctional, poor American family. I was immediately hooked.
Jeanette's earliest memory of is of cooking hotdogs for herself, aged three, (this was not an unusual occurance) and burning herself so badly that she needed skin grafts. She spent six weeks in hospital until her father 'rescued' her, smuggling her out in the middle of the night.
Jeanette and her three siblings experienced hunger, cold and neglect, and regularly moved from town to town as their parents 'skedaddled' because they hadn't paid the rent.
Their father, Rex, a bright, well-read but feckless man, who didn't like taking orders, succumbed to alcohol. Their mother, Rose Mary, could recite Shakespeare and could have made a decent living as a teacher. She preferred to be a tortured artist and spent her time painting rather than preparing a meal for her small children.
Amazingly, the author found a way out of her desperate situation. She escaped to New York and her pathway to a better life was through education (as it was in two other brilliant books I've recently read Animal QC and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis).
There are so many 'oh my goodness' moments in The Glass Castle, but it is not a misery memoir. It is a story told without bitterness and in a delightfully matter-of-fact way. It is not dramatised or overblown; the situation and attention to small details tell the story and you find yourself rooting for the Walls children, who despite everything they have endured obviously love their parents.
If I could give this book more than five stars I would.
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on 9 April 2005
Jeannette Walls writes a very powerful and desperately honest account of her childhood. Raised by an alcoholic father and disinterested mother, she tells of the struggles herself and her siblings faced surviving poverty, neglect, and abuse in the US. Jeannette's account of her childhood is told with humour and acceptance, and I wasnt able to put the book down. A great read.
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on 22 December 2008
I recently picked up this book whilst travelling and am so glad I did. Within a couple of pages I was completely hooked. The gentle account of the author's turbulent and tough life through her younger years is beautifully written and easy to read. Jeanette Walls has a way of reporting her own Mother's home spun philosophies as if she were that age again.

I was engrossed from start to finish and, whilst I wanted the traumatic conditions to end, I didn't want the story to end.

Buy it, read it, enjoy it.

The Glass Castle
The Glass Castle
The Glass Castle: A Memoir (Alex Awards (Awards))
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on 16 March 2012
Although ostensibly a misery memoir like 'Angela's Ashes' and 'The Road To Nab End' Jeannette Walls' 'The Glass Castle' depicts a far more upbeat view of a childhood of abject poverty than her fellow sufferers across the pond.

Brought up by a feckless alcoholic father expert in the art of the moonlight flit and an equally feckless mother who, despite having the means and qualifications to support her family chose to neglect her children to indulge her own passion for painting, you could forgive Jeannette for being bitter. But very little bitterness surfaces even though she could give The Pythons' Four Yorkshiremen a run for their money - 'you were lucky, we had to scavenge for food in the school garbage, our toilet was a bucket on the kitchen floor and I had to paint black spots on my legs to render the holes in my trousers invisible'.

The book charts Jeannette's nomadic childhood in the American West living in desert, mountains and all the terrain in between. It's written in the crisp, journalistic style of her eventual career which makes the memoir extremely readable - I finished it inside forty eight hours. But it isn't simply factual, there are some wonderful descriptive passages on the adventures that she and her brother Brian had as underdogs - the lowest of the low - in places where the whole town was at the bottom of the social scale.

Jeannette ended up living grandly on Park Avenue while her parents lived homeless on the New York streets. She writes lovingly about her father whose catch phrase "would I ever let you down?" she always responded to through gritted teeth. He comes across as a daydreamer whose grand plans never came to anything but at least he encouraged his family to read and must have had bucketfuls of charm to be painted as sympathetically as he is. Her mother is portrayed more coldly even though she, a teetotaler, suffered a life of coping with a hopeless and penniless drunk.

As an example of triumph in the face of adversity this is an uplifting book. Two of Jeannette's three siblings also appear to have survived the childhood to live lives of normality; the fate of the youngest, Maureen, is unclear and, as she grew up when her father's alcoholism was at its worst, she missed the happier times that cemented the older children's relationships and she is probably the real victim of these dreadful parents.

A wonderful book.
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VINE VOICEon 15 November 2014
In this memoir, Jeanette Walls tells the story of her childhood, travelling America with her highly intelligent, yet dysfunctional parents. Her mother was an artist and shunned any suggestion of 'normal' life within four permanent walls. Her father was a vibrant character when sober, who taught his children science, geography and maths, but when drunk, transformed into a gambling, thieving liar. Much of the time they were escaping in the middle of the night from some debt or misdemeanour of their father's. Sometimes he worked, but often it ended in tears.

I am always amazed at how resilient children can be. These four siblings pretty much raised themselves and frequently had more sense then their parents. When they did spend time in any one place it was generally in squalor, sleeping in cardboard boxes under leaking roofs, often not knowing where the next meal was coming from.

My enduring memory from the book was when Jeanette was asked by her father what she would like for her birthday and she replied that she wanted him to stop drinking - and he did it, at least for a while. He loved his children dearly, but he loved alcohol more. He was an inventor, always coming up with some new scheme that was going to make him huge amounts of money. Perhaps his greatest pipe-dream, was the Glass Castle of the title, the fantastic house, for which he'd drawn elaborate plans, but which never came to fruition.

Jeanette's mother was a complete screw-ball, I wonder if she was in some way mentally ill. She came from a wealthy family, and when things got particularly tough the family would go back and stay with the grandmother on her ranch. This was the childrens' only taste of luxury, with regular meals and a proper bed. Jeanette's mother inherited a fair amount of money and a house, on their grandmother's death, but very little changed in their way of life.

The ending was revealed at the start, so it's no spoiler to say that the mother ended up homeless by choice, a denouement that I would think unbelievable if I'd read it in a novel!
There is an interesting video on GoodReads, where the mother is interviewed, well worth a watch.
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on 12 July 2009
I read a fascinating review of the book when it had just appeared in hardback; cut out the review and filed it away, and came across it a couple of weeks ago. I searched for the book in Amazon and ordered it immediately from the marketplace. It gripped me from start to finish, and was the first autobiography I've ever read that I wanted to begin again from the beginning. The paternal grandmother seemed a little hazy, but otherwise every character had a real life of their own (not just the subjective interpretation of the author)and I left the book wanting to know more about them - her mother's paintings, her sister Lori's illustrations, and whatever happened to Maureen. I felt completely drawn into the roller-coaster lives of this family, and - rather than seeing them as impoverished - I believe that the extraordinariness of their lives had its own richness, something that more than compensated for not having the right food on the right table at the right time. In these over-controlled and image-obsessed times, the 'glass castle' represents something worth opening our hearts and minds to.
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on 27 April 2012
I read this on a flight to Australia and it distracted me from my fear of flying. It's well-written and, despite the subject matter, is never sentimental or over-emotional. Jeanette and her siblings were at the mercy of eccentric, selfish, feckless parents but she relates events with a calmness and even-handedness that somehow makes things even more shocking. Her nomadic childhood was full of interesting people and events that make for a gripping read. Her clever, charismatic father is gradually revealed to her as the delusional alcoholic he really is. Yet she doesn't rail against him, but realises she must escape to the city to make her own way in life. Her mother has no mothering instinct whatsoever, but Jeanette and her siblings just accept her as she is. This book is a good choice for a reading group.
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on 2 April 2017
This is a well written book and something of a page turner. The writing is vivid and I felt almost as though I was involved in this family's life. It is a tale of terrible parental selfishness and neglect and at times made me feel so angry that people can treat their children in this way. Somehow the author survives intact without any bitterness towards her unbelievably eccentric mother and drunken father, and despite everything and what they have put her through manages to still love them both. I almost had to stop reading it at one point as the mother made me feel so angry at her unspeakable selfishness and the father taking money from his teenage children who had to work part time out of school to survive, but generally the book has a happy ending - although inevitably one of the four children suffers badly, but we never know what really happens to her. Well worth reading.
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on 19 September 2015
Absolutely fascinating account of a difficult childhood and a 'happy ending'. All of the 'Wells' children were neglected, raised without their basic needs provided for. Going hungry, living in a chaotic, dangerous environment, no clothes, no furniture, no protection from predators of the human kind. Sexual abuse was accepted as normal, life dangers such as being shot at considered no big deal. kids left on their own form a very young age.. But there seems to have been love. Yes really. There was no abuse, just neglect, which nowadays would be a good enough reason to remove the children from their parents. But typically, the kids grew up with a sense of independence and capability and also rebellion against their parents and with such a sense of self preservation and need for organisation that gave them that something extra which can make a really extraordinay person. Both parents must have been mentally ill. The mother seemed to have no maternal instincts at all and the father,.. Maybe it was just alcoholism, or maybe it was the torture of genius that made it impossible for him to live in this modern, constrained, conformist society. BRILLIANT book for a book club, bit depressing that it's true. Maybe I come from a protected naive environment and upbringing but I found this book a fascinating insight into 'different' upbringing. I can't imagine my own two VERY mollycoddled boys surviving that kind of childhood but....who knows! My oldest one is the same age as Jeanette whether father tried to peddle her for money, my own parental instincts rage at this........full stop.
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