Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book review: "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls

"The Glass Castle" is not the kind of book I would normally read, but my wife recommended it so I decided to give it a try. From the moment I started, I could barely put it down.

Author Jeannette Walls gets you hooked in the first half of the book with disturbing and funny tales of her peculiar childhood. Her parents, though clearly smart in an academic sense, avoided steady work and conventional lifestyles, keeping the family perpetually poor. They often "skeedaddled" out of town in the middle of the night to avoid bill collectors.

Walls and her three siblings had to learn to be self-reliant early on. She was cooking her own hot dogs at age 3 (getting seriously burned in the process), she learned to shoot a gun at age 4. All the kids learned how to forage for food in dumpsters and garbage cans they had to, since the refrigerator was frequently empty. Once, Walls fell out of the car when the door flew open on a hard turn, and her parents almost didn't notice.

Her parents were selfish, unstable and irresponsible. But just when you're ready to hate them, they do something right.

Walls' father was an alcoholic whose parenting philosophy was illustrated when he throws her, as a little girl, in deep water repeatedly and literally expects her to sink or swim. He's horrid with money, but later on, miraculously comes up with $1,000 to keep Walls in college.

Her mother was an artist who seemed to have little idea of how to raise children, and really didn't care. But she did have a love for books which was passed on to her children.

The second half of the book takes a turn for the grim, when the family finally settles in a depressing and unfriendly small town in West Virginia. The kids get in fights, they help their mother shoplift, their roof leaks so bad that Walls' brother has to sleep under a rubber raft. They forage for food yet again.

If the book had started this way, I might have been turned off. But by this point, I was hooked and found the story tugging at my heart. I read eagerly all the way to the end to see how the Walls children would turn out.

This isn't one of those memoirs where the author whines. Walls tells her stories with graceful detachment, offering colorful details, but doesn't ask for pity.

On the whole, "The Glass Castle" shows the resilience of children. Despite their strange and difficult upbringing, it's remarkable how well Walls and her siblings turned out.


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