Jeannette Walls opens her memoir stuck in traffic in New York City. As she looks over to the sidewalk, she sees a homeless woman digging in the trash. A homeless woman that she recognizes as her own mother. Instead of leaping out of the cab to embrace her and bring her home, as we would expect, she instead leans back and hopes her mother doesn’t see or recognize her.
Back in her Park Avenue apartment, Walls deals with her feelings of guilt on one hand and helplessness on the other. She rehearses in her mind the number of times she has tried to help her parents before, and their insistence that they are quite content and in need of no help from their children.
This opening chapter segues back to Walls’ earliest memory, when she was three. Dressed in a lovely little dress, the three year-old stands on a chair next to the kitchen stove cooking hot dogs for herself for lunch. The frilly dress catches on fire and little Jeannette spends several months in the hospital recovering from the third degree burns that cover her body.
Surprisingly, the little girl loves being in the hospital. Everything is clean and quiet. All the nurses and doctors speak politely and with kindness. She has her own room, her own bed and gets fed delicious meals three times a day. It is very different from home.
The nurses and doctors have questioned her many times about how she got her burns and why she was cooking her own lunch. They seem upset when she tells them that her mother has encouraged her to cook her own meals, since she is ‘so mature for her age’. Of course, her father’s arguments with the doctors about the proper way to treat her burns doesn’t help the situation any. Finally, her father removes her from the hospital ‘Rex Walls style’ and brings her back home to their tiny trailer house where she belongs. Her mother applauds her when she returns to the kitchen stove to cook herself some hotdogs for lunch. The Walls kids know how to take care of themselves!
The deep contrast between Jeanette’s humble beginnings and the Park Avenue existence shown in the first chapter, immediately create a compelling desire to hear her story. How did she reach such a higher level of social status, while her parents seem to have gone in the opposite direction? It is this driving question that draws you into the book and then keeps you reading. For as you read on about life in the Walls family, the fact that any of the children survived, much less are living productive adult lives, seems even more incredulous.
Although, it may be your curiosity that initially drives you to read further, it is Jeannette Walls’ ability to bring you into the innocence of a child’s perspective that brings an added beauty. She paints the scenes as she saw them then, allowing your understanding of the realities to develop, just as they did for her. She demonstrates a generosity towards her parents and their failings that is not often found in modern memoir.
We see that Rex Walls was a dreamer, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t intelligent. The books he checked out of the library were related to math, physics and electronics. He taught his children both the power and the beauty of numbers, before they ever attended school. The same was true of Rose Mary Walls. She’d graduated from college and earned her teaching certificate, just like her mother had wanted her too. She loved literature and writing and shared those joys with her preschool children, enabling them all to read before they were school age.
Along with his love for math and the sciences, Rex Walls also had “a little drinking situation” (as his wife called it) that often interfered with his ability to hold a job or buy groceries for his family. Rose Mary, on the other hand, never drank alcohol, but her eccentricities seemed to blind her to the needs of her children just the same.
When the Walls family moved to West Virginia to settle in the small mining town that Rex grew up in, living conditions for the family of six went from bad to worse. We see Jeannette, as a teenager, scrounging through her classmate’s discarded lunch bags, hoping to find edible leftovers to stave off the hunger pains that were always there.
This is a story of raw reality, which provides a unique view into a life of poverty and family disfunction. Yet, in spite of all the hardships the Walls children suffered due to the insufficiencies of their parents, you do not hear tones of bitterness or resentment in this story. You have the sense that Jeannette Walls grew up feeling loved by her parents; that somehow the pieces of themselves and the lessons on life that they shared with her made up for the lack of food on table and the cold nights without any heat. The Glass Castleis a story you will not quickly forget.
(Review originally published in HerLife Magazine May 2012)