marginalia || The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.

Jeanette Walls recounts a childhood of, shall we say, peculiarity, in her memoir, The Glass Castle. Her first memory is of being on fire — she was three years old. Oh, you little baby. [My first memory was of my father chasing me around the house with a knife. It was a game, I knew then, because I was giggling while I huddled into a corner of my parents’ bedroom. Far-off, I can hear my mother say, “Stop it, Jeff.” I was not in any danger. It was a game, my father loved me. I can remember his dark face, that ruddy nose, the mole on his cheek, looming.]

Walls’ recounting of her childhood is an odd experience for the reader, looking in. You’re invited to look, but you can’t help but judge. But they’re happy, you tell yourself. But, but. The Walls are unbelievable. It’s a radical lifestyle, skirting the edges of what is legal — it’s one I don’t necessarily agree with. I can be angry with the chronicling, angry at the “irresponsible” parenting — but this is an impotent anger. But they are happy, you tell yourself. Happy enough, at least. At least they’re happy at the beginning. And with this near-useless anger, there’s dread, of course: Something bad will happen, it’s nearly inevitable. The bliss of children just covering up ugly truths: How neglected they are. There’s this scene where the eldest, Lori, gets glasses. And she cries, realizes she’d been seeing a hazy version of the world all this time, and she never knew it.

As the children grow older, rebellion brews: Against carelessness, and the unbelievable childishness of the parents. And I found myself hoping that they would go all the way, to get away, to free themselves. And to stay together despite such a materially craptastic childhood.

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was on long and incredibly fun adventure.

The memories are shared with a child’s ignorance of the nature of judgment. Because Jeannette narrates so matter-of-factly, the reader’s outrage is intensified. Run away, you fume. Someone ought to have reported this, the more pragmatic side of your bristles. Does this make Walls a passive narrator? No, merely a fair one. And that, in itself, is incredibly amazing. By choosing to be clear, by allowing the story to speak for itself, the act becomes one of admirable bravery. Your heart breaks because you know these parents, unfit as they could be, love the children genuinely. But they’re just rather aimless and damaged and so selfish too many times.

Can you blame their philosophy — the abuse, the hunger, the destitution? What can you do when you can’t help but judge because someone has to. Someone has to be outraged in behalf of these children. First, you sigh. You laugh occasionally. Then, you fume. You groan. You murmur, Please, don’t do that. Eventually you scream. And then, well, all you’re left to do is shake your head in wonder. It’s a beautiful, gripping, terrifying, lovely story. Thank you, Miss Walls.

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8 comments

  1. I’ve had this on my shelf forever, so maybe I should bump it up the queue a bit? Sounds squirm-worthy!

    1. Definitely not what I expected. I thought it would either be angst-ridden, or “We’re-So-Eccentric!” subliminal bragging. But I loved it. It had me wanting to reach in the pages and slap some of the characters silly, and then whisk the children away.

  2. Wonderful review. I totally agree with you that there’s something about her dispassionate telling of the story that makes me seethe at her parents. And yes, in the first half (before West Virginia), part of me was torn because they were happy skirting the boundaries of legality, but you know that life can’t work out forever.

    1. Thanks, Teresa. I apologize if it came to me just now, but it was Shelf Love’s review that had me bumping this up the TBR pile. The storytelling was just so non-judgmental — it’s the reader who’s outraged. If Walls had whined just a little, as is her due, I’m sure it would still be a different reading experience. That’s what niggles too — I kept thinking, “Unfit parents!” but they had so many happy moments, they were generally happy, even if living in hellish times.

      Not-quite-bottom line, though: It all worked out. Not in the way they themselves could’ve foreseen, but I believe that Walls is somewhere out there, just a little bit happier. And for the “right” reasons.

  3. I loved this book in the same way that I was gripped by the severity of Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. Both books left me angry, reeling, frustrated and, to put it bluntly, stunned by how other people love, by the things that people will put up with and by the ironies that make themselves clear at the end of Walls’ narrative.
    While Walls’ book isn’t nearly as devestating as Shriver’s both deal with the complexity of nature vs nurture. Walls’ book is more focused on the narrative of the child, while Shriver deals with the perspective of the parent.
    I agree with you that there were moments of frivolity and happiness in this book, but they were far outweighed by the overwhelming sadness that was inherent in the dysfunctionality.
    The mind boggles at the strength of individuals like Walls who can triumph and rise above childhoods like the one that she describes.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Justine. I read this days after reading Shriver’s book, and things reverberated, even though, yes, they tackled the concept of familial love and nature in very different ways. What I’ve found so brave about the book is how fairly Walls recounted her childhood. It makes her rising up — and the memoir — all the more impressive.

  4. Note: should read “live” and not “love”

  5. […] The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. […]

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