Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

By Ana Downes

“The Glass Castle”, originally published in 2005, is a deeply moving and poignant memoir about the life of American author and journalist Jeannette Walls. It is one of my top-three favourite books of all time. Beginning with Jeannette’s earliest memory from when she caught herself on fire while boiling hotdogs alone at 3-years old, to one of her recounting the story of seeing her mother scavenging through a dumpster in New York City, “The Glass Castle” is a tale of a broken childhood and fractured family with a message of hope, ambition, love, self-sufficiency and forgiveness.

Walls’ writing style throughout the memoir is consistent and gripping. She is particularly excellent at pulling readers into her story. Throughout the book, you feel as though you are witnessing, or even experiencing what Jeannette went through. This can be credited to her very expressive style, often using multiple adjectives and strong descriptions to paint a vivid picture of each memory and event.

Walls also incorporates a lot of her thoughts, emotions and symbolism into the descriptions to draw readers in further. Important symbolism includes fire, as well as stars. Fire is a consistent theme throughout the memoir and symbolizes Jeannette’s allure to chaos and her attempt to control the things that frighten her. The stars symbolize Jeannette’s connection with her family (her father in particular) as well as her impoverished childhood.

The symbolism of the “Glass Castle” in particular is simultaneously heart wrenching and beautiful. Throughout Jeannette’s difficult and unstable childhood, one thing stayed consistent – her father’s deep love for her. Her father’s promise to build the two of them a glorious castle made fully out of glass was a beacon of hope and possibility for Jeannette, as well as a tangible symbol of her father’s love and devotion to her and their family. As Jeannette grew older, the glass castle began to symbolically shift into an emblem of lost dreams and her father’s broken promises.

Jeannette’s parents, Rex and Rose Mary were unreliable, neglectful and extremely dysfunctional parents. Jeannette and her siblings Lori, Brian and eventually Maureen were forced to fend for themselves and raise each other ever since they were little. Rex, an entrepreneur and raging alcoholic, cared immensely about his children deep-down but wasn’t very good at showing it. Growing up, Rex often had the family moving frantically from place to place, avoiding creditors who were after him. He called this “doing the skedaddle”.

Having been heavily against conformity and the norms of society and the law, Rex and Rose Mary often acted very irresponsibly towards their children, such as the time that they “busted” the seriously injured 3-year-old Jeannette out of the hospital during her recovery “Rex Walls style”, sneaking her out before the end of her treatment to avoid paying her bill. Another example is the days that the children would go without eating because Rex would continuously fritter away paychecks on trips to the local bar.

There is a chain of abuse that becomes visible once the children meet their grandmother, who is an evil woman and most likely the root of their father’s deep psychological wounds. The mother is, at her core, a husk of a woman who is also emotionally damaged, resulting in her selfish behaviour and inability to advocate for anyone, including the children.

This memoir was heartbreaking to read, but also deeply inspiring as it details Jeannette’s success in all aspects of her life despite her origin and tragic past. Her soul-baring and descriptive style, along with her incredible life story make for a touching memoir.

I would recommend “The Glass Castle” to anyone as it is an absolutely fantastic and thought-provoking book that opens your eyes up to the unfortunate circumstances some people experience. However, as a disclaimer, this book contains some rather distressing subjects and material. I first read this memoir as a 13-year-old, and I would recommend that it only be read by people over 13.

Rating – 5 / 5