Plot: Jeanette Walls begins her memoir with her travelling to a party in Manhattan, only to spot her mother rifling through the garbage on the side of the road. She flashes back to her childhood, with the kids in the family shepherded by two completely unconventional parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Rex, who studied physics, astronomy, and geology, appears to have all of the makings of an excellent engineer. He loves his children but is an alcoholic who cannot hold down a steady job. Rose Mary writes and paints and avoids cooking and cleaning. Together, they have five children, but one, a girl, dies in infancy, which throws Rex into a grief from which he never recovers.
Living like nomads, the family is constantly on the move, going from one desert town to another, hatching schemes, and trying to scrape together enough money to get by. Something always goes wrong and they have to move again. In spite of all his faults, Rex loves his children, and he charms them with stories about how he’s going to discover gold and build them a Glass Castle. Jeanette is swept up in this dream and helps with the planning. Brian, Jeanette’s brother, forms a strong bond with her as they fight to survive. Lori, the eldest, seems less enchanted by her father’s dreams. And Maureen, the baby, is looking for a way to escape.
After hitting rock bottom, the family moves back to Rex’s hometown in Welch, West Virginia, where his mother’s home is a house of horrors. Even when the family finds its own house in Welch, it is a dark, dismal place, a town where dreams die and people merely survive. Rex falls apart, losing his charm even for Jeanette.
Lori flees by going to school in New York, bringing Jeanette and eventually Brian with her. The rest of the family soon follows, and Rex and Rose Mary end up squatting in an abandoned building.
Critical Evaluation: The most striking aspect of this book is that Jeanette tells the story, even the toughest parts, with love for her unusual parents. Even though they were completely incapable of taking care of their children, they are portrayed with affection and understanding. Rex seems brilliant and full of promise, but he cannot escape the horrors of his childhood (he was almost certainly sexually abused by his terrifying mother). Rose Mary is a free spirit, completely devoid of maternal feelings, but she is a good friend, full of life and passion. She could have had a calm, conventional life – she had money and was raised upper middle class – but she preferred living without the comforts of a middle class home. The situations, especially when Rex destroys his loving daughter’s distrust by using her as a sexual pawn in a scheme to get money, could have created a bitter, angry person who castigates her parents for their selfishness and inability to provide their children with the basics, like food and heat. The fact that Jeanette Walls can look at them with love and caring, even admiration, is evidence that hers is not a story of escape from a horrible past but a tale about pulling the good things out of a bad situation. She views her parents as complex, unusual characters. Even when the reader is appalled by Rex’s behavior, we can be sympathetic for this intelligent, loving, but deeply wounded character. Jeanette Walls seems incapable of self-pity; it’s what got her out of her situation. Because of that, it’s plain to see that her parents, despite their foibles, did something right.
Reader’s Annotation: When Jeanette Walls travels to a fancy soiree in Manhattan, she spies her mother sifting through the garbage by the side of the road, which makes her remember her bizarre, dysfunctional childhood and how she escaped her strange parents.
Author bio: Jeanette Walls lived a peripatetic life, wandering from Arizona to Nevada, West Virginia to New York. She chronicles her unusual, often harrowing, childhood in The Glass Castle. In New York, she became a journalist, writing for a now-defunct newspaper called The Phoenix. Her father died in 1994 and she wrote for Esquire, New York Magazine, and others. She dished out gossip for MSNBC before leaving in 2007.
In 2009, she published a novel called Half Broke Horses. She lives in Virginia with her second husband. Her mother lives in an outbuilding and takes care of her horses.
Curriculum Ties: English
Retell a scenario that occurs early in the book – let the author’s unusual perspective come through.
Focus on describing the dysfunctional family scenes, such as her mother’s hoarding chocolate while her children are starving, her father’s wildness as he breaks one of the kids out of the hospital against doctor recommendations.
Focus on the nomadic quality of the family, their moving from one place to another, the questions that arise about her father and her mother. Questions about how the kids survived to thrive.
Reading Level: 5th grade
Interest Age: 17+
Challenge Issues: Alcoholism, family dysfunction, neglect, child abuse.
The book won ALA’s Alex Award and has racked up many rave reviews, even by Francine Prose in The New York Times. Keep passages of the book handy and know the content. This way the story is told is central to understanding the work. There is nothing sensational about it. Focus on the fact that this is a true story and it’s a survival story, one about strong children surviving. It is ultimately uplifting. Really focus on the literary merit of the book.
Why Included: A teen celebrity recommended it in Teen Vogue and it’s a great read with a surprising perspective.