Week 4 – The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

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“Walls, who spent years trying to hide her childhood experiences, allows the story to spill out in this remarkable recollection of growing up. From her current perspective as a contributor to MSNBC online, she remembers the poverty, hunger, jokes, and bullying she and her siblings endured, and she looks back at her parents: her flighty, self-indulgent mother, a Pollyanna unwilling to assume the responsibilities of parenting, and her father, troubled, brilliant Rex, whose ability to turn his family’s downward-spiraling circumstances into adventures allowed his children to excuse his imperfections until they grew old enough to understand what he had done to them-and to himself. His grand plans to build a home for the family never evolved: the hole for the foundation of the “The Glass Castle,” as the dream house was called, became the family garbage dump, and, of course, a metaphor for Rex Walls’ life. Shocking, sad, and occasionally bitter, this gracefully written account speaks candidly, yet with surprising affection, about parents and about the strength of family ties-for both good and ill”  (Zvirin, 2005).

In this captivating memoir, Jeannette Walls recalls her memories growing up in what can only be called an extremely dysfunctional family. In the very first memory she shares, Walls remembers suffering third degree burns from a cooking fire at just three years old; and it’s all downhill from there. Moving from place to place with an eccentric, absent-minded mother and an alcoholic father, Walls shares a story of poverty, perseverance, and the importance of fighting for your family. As her own mother explains of the Joshua tree near the beginning of the memoir, it is the struggles we face that give us the most beauty (Walls, 2005, p. 38).

I’ve never much been a fan of memoirs and autobiographies. In fact, I’m not a very big lover of non-fiction in general. Perhaps this is because I have not-so-fond memories of being forced to read boring non-fiction textbooks all throughout my grade school years. Whatever the case, I found myself really enjoying this memoir, which is set up much more like a narrative than it is a boring biographical account. At times, I forgot I was reading someone’s memoir; to me, it felt like I was reading a novel. I think a large part of me simply didn’t want to believe that all of this could actually happen to someone, and I was often shocked by what I was reading. For example, there are many times throughout the memoir where Walls recalls starving, looting through the trashcans in her school in order to find food. It amazed and frustrated me that her parents, while sitting on millions of dollars in land and heirlooms, would allow their children to go hungry out of sheer stubbornness. I found myself really rooting for Walls and her siblings throughout the narrative, hoping they would all be able to make it out on top (despite less than stellar circumstances).

While I’m sure there are a lot of teens who, like me, are not the biggest fans of non-fiction, I feel that this is a memoir that even the most reluctant reader can enjoy. As New York Newsday attests in their review of the work, “Some people are born storytellers. Some lives are worth telling. The best memoirs happen when these two conditions converge” (As cited in Walls, 2005). This is absolutely true of The Glass Castle, as Walls proves herself very early on to be a masterful storyteller with an incredibly moving, intriguing past. This memoir had the power to do something that most non-fiction does not; it sparked my interest in an entire genre I have yet to really explore. I would absolutely recommend this to either a teen who has fallen on hard times (as they can easily relate to Walls’s story), or to anyone who is a reluctant reader of non-fiction. Walls has the kind of story that really pulls you in, leaving you constantly hungry to know what happens next.

Throughout the class for which I’m writing this blog (LIS 614), we’ve talked a great deal about giving teenagers more credit than they’re usually afforded. All too often, adults try to ban or censor books in order to shelter young adults from the truth of the world, when in reality many of them are already facing these truths in their own lives. As Walls says near the end of The Glass Castle, “I wanted to let the world know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets” (2005, p. 270). This is the type of memoir that lets even the unluckiest, most unfortunate teen in the world know that he or she is not alone, and that anyone can improve their circumstances with enough drive and courage. This, to me, is such an important message, and one that I think everyone who is down on their luck deserves to hear.

While I cannot think of an instance in which this work could be used in a classroom, it lends itself very well to use in either a school or public library. Along with being a wonderful recommendation for reluctant readers, this book could also function very well as the focal point of a creative writing workshop or “interesting memoirs” display, as it is a testament to the power of excellent writing and storytelling. After reading The Glass Castle for myself, I do believe I’m going to explore more of this genre when I get the chance; I am never one to turn down an inspiring, interesting story.

References:

Walls, J. (2005). The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York: Scribner.

Zvirin, S. (2005). The Glass Castle. The Booklist, 101(11), 923.

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