A year ago for Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me this book. It looked intriguing but sat on the shelf for an entire year while I figured out how to fit reading into my life again after having a child. I finally read it over Christmas this year and found it fascinating. I, a very slow reader, read it in 4 days of nap-times and was sad when it ended.
The Glass Castle is a memoir - an astonishing true story about what I guess you'd call the "life adventures" of a girl raised by unique parents, and boy is that an understatement. The book begins jarringly with the author relating an experience of sitting in a taxi in New York City, on her way to a fancy party, and looking over to see her mother - a homeless person - rooting through the trash. I was intrigued and horrified from page one.
My husband likes to describe his own parents' parenting philosophy as "benign neglect." He tells all sorts of stories about he and his siblings fending for themselves, but they are nothing compared to what this woman and her siblings faced. Her non-conformist, drifter parents moved the four children from western desert mining town to town repeatedly while living in ridiculously tragic conditions. In one instance, right after the fourth child was born, the family moved and rented a u-haul truck. Since there was no room for the children up front, they all had to sit in the back with the furniture. Jeannette was in charge of holding the new baby in the dark in this truck for 14 hours - no food, no stops, no noise. Often they went without food, while their mother bought art supplies and their father bought alcohol.
When things got bad, the family headed east to West Virginia, where the father was from. Life did not improve for them. They lived in a house with no indoor plumbing, no working kitchen, no heat. The children slept in homemade bunkbeds with mattresses made of cardboard boxes. Jeannette's brother slept with a tarp over his head because the roof had caved in over him.
Interwoven through the chapters of this book are Jeannette's father's hopes and dreams and her mother's artistic visions. Her father was a visionary genius who planned to build a house for the family out of glass. When they moved to West Virginia, the children began to dig a hole on their property that would be the foundation for this great house, only to have it filled up with the family's trash, since they could not afford garbage service. Somehow, she creates an air of magic to her childhood. When there was no money for gifts, her father gave the children stars in the sky. They were voracious readers. They went demon-hunting in the desert to dispel childhood nightmares.
When you read this book, you wonder what century it took place in and marvel that it is a contemporary story, that Child Protective Services never took these children away, and frankly, that the children even survived. The book is told in a very unemotional, non-whiny way that is refreshing, and I think healing to the reader who is tramatized from time to time from the experiences she relates. It brings to light the conflict that many of us face when we grow up and realize our parents' imperfections. The amazing thing is, though, that no matter what we all have gone through, it is probably NOTHING compared to Jeannette Walls.