Book Review: The Glass Castle


Here’s a little memoir writing inspiration for you today, or just a great read (if you’re looking for either): Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. After skipping past it several times in Half Price Books, I had to finally read it when both a comrade in my writers’ group and my editor suggested it.

Here are three reasons why you should read it:

1)    The story. The story of two genius, yet crazy parents and how their eccentricities drag their four kids down, it’s wacky enough to the point of being unbelievable; but I’m taking Walls at her word that this is what she remembers of her childhood. Imagine an engineer dad and an artist mom who are too freethinking to be shackled to regular jobs, who do the “skedaddle” whenever they get in trouble with the law. Imagine parents who would rather have their family live in shacks, ditches, or inside their van than have air conditioning and heating and plumbing and food—all in the name of chasing their dreams. It’s particularly fascinating watching young Jeannette and her siblings come of age amidst the chaos of their parents’ childishness (mental illness? I still can’t decide what would possess parents to act like this) and note the strength they muster because, well, they must. A fascinating psychological portrait of a dysfunctional family, as well as an amusing, and at times, heartbreaking, read.

2)    The writing. Vivid, fast-moving, and clear, Walls sucks the reader in on the first page and doesn’t let go until the end. As my editor put it, note the detachment with which Walls describes the “wacky and terrible things her parents did to her.” Walls writes details that a child would notice with the diction of a well-trained writer—and she doesn’t get overly analytical. Instead, she lets the reader point to her family in horror and amusement and disbelief and disgust. As my editor also said, children aren’t able to process what certain things mean; all they know is, “Here’s what happened.” Reading about the horrors of living in such a dysfunctional family from the perspective of a speaker who can only report, not analyze, is fascinating. Just fascinating.

3)    The reassurance that your own family isn’t that bad. After reading about Walls’s family, I felt a lot better about my own. If you can’t say the same, I am truly sorry for you, but at least you have the makings of a great memoir in your head!

The book’s title comes from Jeannette’s dad’s grand plan to build the family a “glass castle” in which to live someday. This image becomes increasingly ironic and heartbreaking as the book progresses and the family slides deeper into a squalor from which, the children slowly realize (and readers much sooner understand), they will never emerge.

The one criticism I would levy at the book is this: I feel there is no way an adult could remember in such clear detail (as Walls seems to) what happened in childhood. Though I ate up every scene with each painstakingly stinky or ugly detail, I found myself disbelieving that she could really remember what she said at three years of age, or what her home looked like at four, or the fight her parents had when she was five, etc.

I voiced this to my editor, saying, “I could never write about my childhood so vividly,” to which she replied, “It’s amazing what children with dysfunctional backgrounds can remember.” I’ll have to research that, but for the sake of a great story, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and grant that Walls reported to the best of her ability (without needlessly embellishing) a story that was real and true, as far as she could remember. In the end I have to grant that, for a memoir writer, memories, however we filter them, are truth. So hats off to Jeannette Walls for letting us in on the horrors of her memory. Today I go back to my own memories feeling strengthened to report.


The Playground Kiss (A Rare, Funny Memory)

Source: Apparently, these days a little girl can get the police called for pulling a stunt like this!

What do you find when rooting around in your memory? And do you do this often, or only when together with family or friends?

As a memoir writer, it is my job to sift through memories, but sadly, that’s not always a fun task. On the other hand, when my husband’s family gets together to excavate their collective consciousness, there’s no end to the laughs.

I can only hope my family will get to that point someday, too, but for now, I take hope from a recent realization: Namely, my memory seems to have these gaps—huge gaps—from my childhood.

Anyway, we were at my nephew’s Kindergarten graduation recently, and that jogged my memory back to my own early elementary life. Sitting there pregnant, I started to have memories of me around that age, and I wondered if I really wanted my kid to go to school.

Because suddenly, I was remembering how I’d been scarred by school—specifically, my rejection by many of the girls in my class.


“Honey, I don’t want our kid to go through that,” I worried to my hubby later that night, explaining how recess used to strike terror in me like class time never did.

“Oh, you’re just assuming it will be the same for our child as it was for you. But you’ve never been comfortable in social situations.”

“Oh really?” I prickled.

“I mean, you’ve gotten somewhat better…” he amended. “But that’s just your personality. Most kids like recess.”

Hmmm. I can’t sort this all out now, meaning I don’t know where our kid will go to school. But I went to bed disappointed that my most prominent memory from early elementary was that painful sting of rejection. I also realized I hadn’t spent much time writing or thinking about my early years, and I hoped doing so would turn up some forgotten gems—and some laughs, like my in-laws enjoy.

So, as I lay in bed, I kept rooting around in my memory. There must be something funny in there, somewhere. Then, I found it.

A Rare, Funny Memory

On that same playground where I remember so often standing on the outside of the circle, I also remembered becoming bold, empowered. I remembered first grade, or the only time I have ever openly pursued a man (well, in this case, a boy).

I don’t remember when it started, or why I thought it a good idea, but for a week or two that school year, before the teacher told me to stop, I became a man-hunter. I spotted a boy I wanted—let’s call him Aaron—and every day at recess I commenced chasing him…past the monkey bars, around the sandbox, under the swings…all in hot pursuit of a kiss.

Poor guy. He was terrified of me, and one day the race, or the stress, gave him a nosebleed. Kindly, that day I desisted.

But one day I finally caught him, cornered him, and bent over his cowering figure. I remember thinking, as I went in for the kill, that it didn’t feel as satisfying as I thought it would, kissing my victim. I suppose it’s that I would have liked the object of my affection to reciprocate, just a little.


Anyway, later that day later in class, my teacher, an overweight Trunchbull type, called me out in front of everyone else—in her stern voice and with her lightning eyebrows, she told me to stop chasing Aaron. And I, now terrified, could only stutter, “Y-y-y-y-yes, Ma’am.” It was enough for me, the embarrassment of being publicly chastised.

Aaron didn’t talk to me for the rest of first grade. And then I switched schools for second grade, and when I came back to third grade, he’d also transferred schools. And I’ve never spoken to him since. I wonder how he remembers those moments? If he comes to my ten-year class reunion this summer, I just might ask him. (After I apologize for my appalling behavior, that is.)

In case you didn’t catch it, this story is funny because of my personality now. Docile and quiet, everyone says. What got into that little girl to become a playground terror for a time? Or should I really be asking: What went out of me after that day?

Ever after that, I was never bold enough to send so much as a signed note to a crush—not before he first showed interest in me. So a lot of my crushes—actually most of them—sprouted, withered, and died, all within the confines of my heart, with no one else to witness the damage. I learned to keep it in. Maybe I learned that openness about love was embarrassing?


girl at pool

There is a coda to my playground story that makes it even funnier, at least in an ironic sort of way.

The summer after first grade, I was swimming with my brother at the community pool, with lots of other elementary kids there. And unbeknownst to me, I was about to get my just deserts for attacking Aaron.

There was another boy in my class—let’s call him James—who had a crush on me, but I thought he was about the grossest boy on the planet. Before that day, I’d never paid him any attention, and may not have known his true feelings for me. He, too, was a quiet child. But after that day at the pool, I would know without a doubt. He, too, got the devil in him, at least for a day.

Suddenly, he started chasing me. Around the perimeter of the pool, in the shallow end, in the deep end, and back again. I couldn’t turn my back for a moment because there he’d be—that big nasty boy—and he wanted more than a kiss!

Though it seems like this went on for hours, it could’ve lasted only minutes. All I knew was I felt trapped, and desperate. I couldn’t get away from this boy, and no one would help me! All they did was laugh!

In the middle of the afternoon, he caught me in the shallow end, cornered me, and caved in on me. His arms and legs wrapped around me like tentacles, and slowly I felt my breath escaping, as if the life were being sucked out of me.

I was thrashing my arms and legs, trying desperately to escape my attacker—and then, suddenly, he released me, and swam away. And that was the end of that. We hardly ever spoke again.

What is the lesson to be learned here? I’ll leave that for you to decide—and comment on. My job was just to turn up a funny memory. Do you think I succeeded?