By Stephane Mohr
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is one of the most brilliant, gorgeous books I have ever read. A heartbreaking, intense story of the life of Jeanette and her three siblings as they learn to cope with their parents’ instability, Walls recalls her childhood and, more specifically, the heart-wrenching relationship between she and her father with such vivid descriptions that it’s easy to forget the novel is actually a memoir. Complete and utter real life events and people mapped out within three hundred pages of broken promises and barely-there hope.
The novel follows Jeanette from the age of three until what seems to be, but is never specified, he early thirties, and her siblings Lori, Brian and Maureen as they bounce from place to place on the west coast with their unreliable parents — their alcoholic father, Rex and their selfish, seemingly uncaring mother, Rose Mary. He can’t hold a job for very long, doesn’t trust anyone, and is always “doing the skedaddle” — moving anywhere the government can’t find him, probably because he owes taxes, although he creates elaborate, intense stories of mafias and gangs that are after him, instead, just to make everything seem more like an adventure.
Everything has to be an adventure for Rex and Rose Mary. They get antsy if they stay in one place too long, and hate “living like normal people”. They’d much rather camp out in the middle of the Nevada desert and starve than live in a regular house with neighbors and a steady income. Which is all fine and dandy — when you’re not dragging a newborn and three elementary school aged children along with you.
Not everything in the Walls’ children’s life is bad, and their parents aren’t completely horrible at times — and what a beautiful thing Walls, as an author, does to show us this. When reading a memoir, I find myself always needing to remind myself that everything is really. The people actually lived, the events actually took place, certain dialogue was actually said — those types of things, and The Glass Castle was no different. However, what did stick out to me from other memoirs I’ve read was the characterization of the people she was writing.
People are not black and white. An obvious statement, but still, necessary to make. Everyone is deeply flawed and intensely intricate in their own ways, and the relationships we form with others is no different. Jeanette shows us this in the most beautiful way possible. As she recalls her childhood, the struggles she faces and the relationships she forms with her siblings is obviously there, but it becomes clear almost immediately that the book as a whole is about her father. And about she and her father’s relationship as a father and daughter.
She takes us through being a child, and idolizing her father. Hanging on to his every word, defending him when others call him a bum, or an alcoholic, or accuse him of being a bad dad. She shows us that he is a highly unlikable character. Verbally abusive to his wife, neglectful of his children, selfish. As readers, we want to hate Rex, but we can’t quite do it. Why? Because he’s human. And because he’s human, he is not all bad. Jeanette shows us sparse, but absolutely stunning moments where we as readers can see just how much he truly loves his children.
The moments are more like seconds. Barely there glimpses into his mind and his thoughts. When he takes each child out individually and gives them a star for Christmas. When he almost loses Jeanette and Brian because they get caught in a fire. When he sneaks them in to the zoo and convinces them to pet a tiger. When Jeanette finally leaves the house. But these moments, like they are not enough, in the end, to keep Jeanette wanting to stay, are equally not enough for us, as readers, to feel completely bad for him. Still, he is human.
Along with her stunning characterizations of not just her father, but her mother and siblings as well, Walls pairs her unique narrative with such vivid imagery, the reader is immediately there with her, wherever she goes. A casino in Vegas, a run down town at the edge of a barely-running train station, a suburban neighborhood in Phoenix, an ashy mountainside in Virginia. Every description of every season, sunset, street corner and car ride is so alive and so detailed, you wonder if she visited these places again as an adult, just to get them just right.
“The Glass Castle”, while the title of the book, is also the dream Rex Walls had for his children. Whether it was a legitimate plan, or just something he made up to keep them sedated and interested is never truly explained (although the reader gets the feel it was more of the latter). The Glass Castle was just that — a castle made of glass, that he would build sky high and they would all live in. One big happy family. The Glass Castle serves as well as a metaphor for all of the promises Rex made Jeanette and never kept. All of the dreams he talked about having, and the things they would all do, but never did.
The book catalogs the less than unusual childhood the Walls children had, the bonds formed between siblings in the face of adversity and neglect, the love Jeannette has for literature and writing, the dreams she and her siblings had to finally get out, and get away, and escape. And her father. The one she always vouched for, always believed, and always loved. The one who, even though he may have made some pretty questionable decisions, was still, until the very end, human.
Stephane Mohr is a Senior at Barbara Ingram