- The Glass Castle
In short, The Glass Castle is a portrait of bohemian, artsy, kooky, and sometimes feckless parents. Despite their familial drawbacks, including a handful of horrific scenes of neglect set against a backdrop of a deep and ongoing peripatetic poverty, Walls refrains from devolving into bathos and blame, or, even worse, a Pollyanna riff of saccharine sentimentality. Instead, she creates an extraordinarily balanced view, a story that manages to ring true when singing the praises of a penurious life on the road while at the same time vividly depicting the isolation and confusion of children whose lives contain very little material and emotional security.
This is a first memoir for Jeannette Walls, a contributor to MSNBC.com, and she brings to bear a journalist's keen eye as well as a strong sense of narrative. The brief, pithy chapters read like short-short stories, capturing the tip of the iceberg, suggesting depth and emotional complexity.
Take the opening, set during Walls's adulthood in New York City. On the way to a party, Walls catches, from her taxi window, an unexpected glimpse of her mother. She writes: "She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash. . . . Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she'd been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud."
Here, folded into one sharp moment, we see the mother in the same tragic complexity that the daughter sees her, the desperate disparity between what she once was and what she has become. How her mother gets from cliff diving to dumpster diving, a street person who clings insistently to the freedom of homelessness, makes a compelling story.
Another aspect of the plot is Oz-like, as suggested by the title, The Glass Castle. The children relish the stories their father tells, his romantic self-image. They beg him for the tales, heroic accounts in which he alternately rescues his air force crew after an emergency landing, wrestles a pack of wild dogs threatening an injured horse, and repairs the Hoover Dam, saving thousands. Walls depicts her father as she saw him then, a father who will protect his children from any threat (even though his alcoholism leaves [End Page 150] them filthy, impoverished, starving), not as the bullshit artist the reader is likely to discern over her shoulder.
And the details are convincing. The reader can see how exciting these parents are, even during times of simultaneous and dangerous neglect. "In my mind, Dad was perfect, although he did have what Mom called a little bit of a drinking situation," Walls writes. "There was what Mom called Dad's 'beer phase.' We could all handle that. Dad drove fast and sang really loud, and locks of his hair fell into his face and life was a little bit scary, but still a lot of fun. But when Dad pulled out a bottle of what Mom called 'the hard stuff,' she got kind of frantic, because . . . Dad turned into an angry-eyed stranger who threw around furniture and threatened to beat up Mom or anyone else who got in his way." Once again, Walls allows readers to see past her idealized view of her father, through the report of the mother's point of view, a perspective that doesn't quite seem to permeate the child's awareness. In a virtuoso line about her child logic, Walls adds, "But Dad drank hard liquor only when we had money, which wasn't often, so life was mostly good in those days."
This doubleness is as close as Walls gets to self-reflection in the scenes about her childhood. Later, when she depicts herself as an adult (as in the short opening chapter), we see her interior struggle with guilt and with trying to find a place for herself in a world her parents have refused to engage.