Monday, May 20, 2013

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

An “Adventurous” Childhood (Memorable Memoirs Week)

The Glass Castle is a memorable memoir about kids growing up in a highly dysfunctional family.  Both parents were extremely intelligent, but seemed to do everything they could to avoid work and properly provide for Jeannette and her three siblings. Instead, the kids were left dirty, poor, often times homeless, unsupervised, and always hungry.  What makes this book so memorable is that incredible incidents were heaped on one after the other. The hits just kept coming. It left me in slack-jawed astonishment that people could really be like that. And surprisingly, Jeannette didn't seem to judge her parents harshly, when I’m not sure most people would be so tolerant. 

Jeanette's father was an alcoholic. Her self-centered mother only wanted to be an artist. She was seriously devoid of maternal instincts genes. The need to work so her family could eat was a distasteful concept. When she was “forced” to take a teaching job, the kids were the ones who ended up grading her papers and nearly pushing her out the door to work. 

Both parents made sure their kids knew Santa Claus wasn't real, just in case they got it into their heads that they might actually get lavish presents.  They weren't complete scrooges, though.  They did celebrate Christmas—usually just a week later.  That way they could grab discarded Christmas trees, ribbons and bows after the fact. 

Their unconventional upbringing sometimes made their kids look at the world with a unique perspective. One memorable moment was when Jeannette’s dad gave her a star for a Christmas present. He told her to pick one out of the sky and she could have it for keeps. “Years from now, when all the junk they [the other kids] got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.” Yet this one touching moment was overshadowed by the alcoholism that would bring him down to shameful and unconscionable depths that no child could forget.

Don’t miss this book.  The buzz it generated when it was published in 2005 was well deserved. I actually got my son to read this book—and even he really liked it! Later my husband read it and gave it thumbs-up

Update:  Jan/2017: My daughter just read it on her maternity leave, and yes, she loved it too!

The Glass Castle details some of the lows parents can reach.  On the other end of the spectrum, I would like to recommend The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan. This delightful autobiography highlights what an extraordinary mother who found creative ways to keep her family fed in the 1950s and 60s while they, too, dealt with an alcoholic father. 

As a father figure, I also love Mr. Gilbert’s parenting style in Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbert Carey. Set in the early 1900s this book is a charming memoir of parents who use incentive and innovation to bring order to their big brood.

Happy reading!


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  1. The Glass Castle was at times heartbreaking to read but I admire the way Jeannette Walls tells her story without sounding bitter. I doubt I could have done the same. After finishing I immediately bought a copy for my best friend to read. A good book that helps put things in perspective. Especially with the consumer-based holiday season approaching.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I totally agree with you. It's amazing that she didn't sound bitter considering her childhood. It's an unforgettable book--ranks right up there with "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt.