‘The Glass Castle’ is a fascinating memoir. It tells the story of Jeannette Walls’ incredible childhood growing up living a nomadic existence that ensures the children have a unique experience of the world. What is normal to the Walls children – existing surrounded by stray animals, doing the ‘skedaddle’ at a moment’s notice when things get tough, watching their father drink himself into a frenzy – is obviously shocking to the reader. Jeannette narrates the details of her life from early childhood to adulthood in both moving and harrowing detail.
Nowadays such memoirs are perhaps twoapenny so what makes ‘The Glass Castle’ so engaging and, indeed, memorable enough to feature on the Goodreads 100 top novels to read? Well, firstly there are the characters themselves. We should hate Rex Walls: he is an alcoholic whose addiction corrodes his family; he is, at best, a neglectful husband and father and, at worst, an abusive one; he is utterly self-absorbed choosing his addiction over the needs of his family repeatedly; he is utterly delusional. However, perhaps as a result of the narrator’s continued affection for him, we do not see him solely in this light: he is charismatic; spectacularly intelligent; inspires his children imaginatively and creatively; and at times is immensely loving and thoughtful. It is thus Walls’ ability to present the complexity of his character rather than demonising him that makes her memoir so compelling.
It would also have been very easy to present herself as a victim and bewail the tragedy of her impoverished early life. However, Walls does not do this. She focuses as much on the joy, the humour and the quirkiness of her family as she does on their poverty. Although it is evident from the brief details of the children’s later lives that they do not escape unscathed, it is also true that this tragic, nomadic existence produces some impressive people.
From a personal point of view, it also provided an insight into life in very backwards areas of America – the outskirts of the desert, the mining town of Welch and so on. I would like to think that such a family as the Walls would never have been allowed to continue in England where we have, especially in schools today, such a strong responsibility for child welfare and certainly students who came to school without food or adequate clothing would have been helped in some way today. But we are talking about 1970s America, which feels in this book like a different planet altogether almost.
Of course there is part of me that I suppose questions the credibility of the narrative and how someone can have emerged from such a childhood so seemingly undamaged and lacking in bitterness. Although perhaps that is more a reflection of my attitude to life than the novel itself. There was also a great deal more I wanted to know – I wanted to know more about what happened next particularly for Maureen. I also wanted to know more about the mother and her land. SPOILER ALERT: one of the most shocking elements of the novel to my mind was that their mother allowed them to exist in such poverty and deprivation without lighting, heating or even basic food provision and yet all this time, she owned land worth millions, which she neither mentioned to them or even contemplated selling so that they could live in basic comfort. In some ways, this was the greatest betrayal to my mind. Whist she may have chosen to live with an alcoholic and to opt for a bohemian existence living on the streets or with little beyond her artistic inspiration, this was not a choice she had a right to make for her children.
I have never read a novel quite like ‘The Glass Castle’. Walls’ deeply empathetic, engaging and traumatic account of a childhood that one can only hope few will experience is at once moving and inspiring. It is a novel about suffering and addiction, but also about love and survival and this is perhaps why it will remain so enduring popular.