The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (re-read)

glass castle  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

2005. Scribner. Paperback. 288 pages.


I first read The Glass Castle five years ago and absolutely loved it. I had no trepidation when I picked it up again. I knew it would hold up to a re-read and it did. I like that Walls’ tone throughout the book manages to be matter-of-fact without distancing the reader. My emotions were always engaged, but not manipulated, by her writing.

Also, the narrative she constructs for her childhood is very compelling. The book memorably begins with Jeannette Walls as an adult, taking a taxi to a party in New York City, and then she looks out the window to see her mom digging through a dumpster. The book soon transitions to an early memory of how Jeannette was badly burned while trying to boil a hotdog at three years old. She captures a child’s journey from accepting her parents as normal to the slow realization that something is wrong. In one of these turning points, Jeannette and her sister Lori have just finished off eating margarine with sugar, for lack of other food options.

Mom got angry. She was saving it, she said, to butter the bread. We already ate all the bread, I said. Mom said she was thinking of baking some bread if a neighbor would loan us some flour. I pointed out that the gas company had turned off our gas.

“Well,” Mom said. “We should have saved the margarine just in case the gas gets turned back on. Miracles happen, you know.” It was because of my and Lori’s selfishness, she said, that if we had any bread, we’d have to eat it without butter.

Mom wasn’t making any sense to me. I wondered if she had been looking forward to eating the margarine herself. And that made me wonder if she was the one who’d stolen the can of corn the night before, which got me a little mad. “It was the only thing to eat in the whole house,” I said. Raising my voice, I added, “I was hungry.”

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

p. 69

Another reason I love this book is the bond between Jeannette and her siblings, who look out for each other, in the face of their parents failure to do the same.

I recently read two thought-provoking reviews/comment sections around this book that I want to discuss a bit. Both reviewers admire the book, but as I interpreted from their writing, they experienced some unease regarding the book’s reception by readers – that is, how readers categorized the story, and what they took away from it.

The first is Jenny’s recent review from Shelf Love. In the comment section, blogger Litlove compared Walls’ story to a fairy tale:

The fairy tale critic, Jack Zipes maintains that fairy tales are as much for the parents as the children, a way of making them feel better about the stuff they may have done to their kids. And that’s the part of the book I struggle with – the thought of all the people who might read this and think: see, what I did wasn’t so bad after all.

The concern here, I think, is that the Hansel and Gretel aspect of the story, and Walls’ dispassionate tone may cause readers to gloss over the parental wrongs, and reinforce this idea that children can magically surmount anything if they just have enough guts and determination.

Here is a link to Litlove’s 2009 review from her blog, Tales from the Reading Room. She and those who discussed the book in that review’s comment section expressed unease about people who see the book as uplifting, who praise the author’s forgiveness and indeed, see it as a story about forgiveness.

This criticism of readers made me feel a little defensive, at first, as what stays with me about this book is how the siblings helped each other out of their situation. So yes, a big part of the reason I like the book is this one positive aspect to her story, in the midst of the harrowing details. I may not use the word uplifting, but I found myself rooting for these kids and feeling glad when three out of the four of them managed to free themselves from the situation.

In a funny way, the expressed unease of some commenters on Litlove’s blog made me feel uneasy, because it sometimes came across as: “Dear other readers: you’re reading it wrong.” But at the same time, I must admit that I have expressed similar unease when it comes to the popularity of books like Twilight. And I think the key here is the popularity of the work, because it is then that we start wondering why is this popular and we start connecting it to patterns of popular stories. One of the commenters on Litlove’s review remarked how Americans love the “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” narrative. If this narrative is overly favored, such favor may submerge narratives which describe the damaging generational cycle of poverty and abuse. Thus, The Glass Castle‘s popularity makes some readers uneasy, because it can be seen as inadvertently contributing to this imbalance.

Of course, such favor isn’t the fault of the book itself, especially in this case where it is a memoir describing actual life events. And I feel that I can love what I love about The Glass Castle without caveat, while acknowledging that it shouldn’t be the only type of narrative I read about poverty. And it hasn’t been: I’ve also read books like Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, a nonfiction book that captures the cycle of poverty among families in the Bronx. That said, I definitely welcome more suggestions for books about poverty, especially nonfiction and memoir.

Thanks to Jenny, Litlove and sundry commenters for stirring me to deeper thought on this topic, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized your opinions!

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves – “I spent most of the reading of this book alternating between horrified and fascinated, and feeling a little bit like a voyeur watching something that I should probably stop.”

The Book Lady’s Blog – “This was a gripping, touching, ultimately very redemptive story that reminded me of all I have to be thankful for and inspired me to be more aware of those who have less.”

Tales from the Reading Room – “The book reads to me like a return to a time that has been frozen in the past, unexamined, unexplained, unexplored, preserved with the love and loyalty of the young child, who has no choice in the matter.”


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2 responses to “The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (re-read)

  1. What an interesting and sensitive discussion of this book and our differing reactions to it! I particularly appreciated the way you used your own feelings to get deeper in the memoir. And I also like what you say about your emotions being engaged without being manipulated. I often like that very much when it happens, which was a very intriguing point of view for me about The Glass Castle. I think if there was any misreading going on, I was probably the culprit as I was going against the grain of what Jeannette Walls thought her book was all about! But the pleasure of a really great book is that it holds the potential for all sorts of different readings, and that’s what comes out so well in your post. I do love the way the blogworld allows us to bring all our different perspectives together like this.

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