And you thought YOUR childhood was messed up.
“The Glass Castle” is a family memoir by Jeanette Walls, detailing her trauma-racked childhood, growing up with an abusive father and a neglectful mother.
That’s how other people might summarize the story. But it’s not how Walls tells it.
Like The Alchemist before it, this book was recommended to me by a friend. She called it her favorite book ever. “I just like the way the author tells it,” she said. Being currently involved in the act of writing a travel memoir myself, I had a professional interest in a well-told life story. Plus, if someone lends you a copy of their favorite book and you don’t read it, sorry, but you’re kind of a dick.
Walls’ childhood as depicted in this book, by all objective standards, was deplorable. She was mistreated, abused, manipulated, and living in squalor. The book begins when Jeanette is 3. She suffers a severe burn due to parental negligence, and her parents eventually abduct her from the hospital. And that’s THE START of things. Child Protective Services officers in West Virginia, where much of the action takes place, were surely horrified to read this account.
But what makes the Glass Castle so interesting, and so well done, is the way in which Walls is capable of presenting such an innocent and understanding voice.
The memoir primarily spans the adolescent years, with a few scenes thrown in showing Walls as an adult. When Walls is a child, her prose and understanding of her father is more idealistic. But as she grows up and comes to understand her father is an alcoholic, the innocence slowly leaves the writing.
What’s special here is the entirely unremarkable way in which this happens. There is no great moment of revelation; no stunning scene around which the whole book revolves. Much like real life, Walls’ memoir is simply made up of a lot of ordinary people, experiencing ordinary moments, and slowly coming to understand their world better.
It’s this ordinariness which comes to define “The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle,” for me. I’m struggling to find a direction to steer my thoughts on this book, because in a lot of ways, it seems quite ordinary. Which is, actually, an absolutely extraordinary thing to say about the type of story contained within “The Glass Castle.”
No one lives a life like this.
Or so it seems. But when you read “The Glass Castle,” and you see Jeanette Walls in a high-powered journalism job in New York, you begin to wonder.
Walls is an extraordinary person who has probably spent her whole life learning to be ordinary in the telling. In New York, she opts to simply not discuss her childhood with her co-workers. They probably assume she comes from a house in the suburbs.
The gift of this book then, I guess, is to remind you to ask:
“What’s her story?”