I’ve always been drawn to stories of people, especially children. overcoming situations of adversity. So when I stumbled upon a synopsis of ‘The Glass Castle’, I immediately added it to my list of things to read and purchased it as soon as I could. Originally published in 2005, I was surprised that this book had not come to my attention earlier – it would seem that it is now getting global recognition after the release of the 2017 film based on the same memoir, starring Woody Harrelson and Brie Larsson.
Written by Jeannette Walls ‘The Glass Castle‘ is a a true story. This memoir recounts the journey of Jeannette and her three siblings (Lori, Brian and Maureen) as they attempt to navigate a childhood fraught with uncertainty. The book takes us from early childhood right through to adulthood and documents the trials and tribulations of growing up with an alcoholic father (Rex) who is constantly on the run from the law and an eccentric mother (Rose) who is more interested in creating works of art than raising her own children.
Although much of the children’s time is spent moving from one run down abode to another, or in the back of a car/van as the family have to ‘skedaddle’ to avoid run ins with the law, much of the story takes place whilst the family were living at 93 Little Hobart Street, Welch, West Virginia. During their time there Jeannette and her siblings are left to fend for themselves; the little cash they had would be squandered on booze by Rex or spent on art supplies by Rose – leaving the children hungry. At the age of 5, Jeannette was badly scarred when her dress caught fire as she attempted to boil some hot dogs after her mum had refused to prepare her any food, declaring that the ‘food will be gone in 5 minutes, whereas the painting she was working on will last a lifetime’. This is a good example of Rose’s nonchalant attitude towards her children, who she clearly loves but also saw as a huge inconvenience and an obstacle to her vision of becoming a successful artist.
The memoir is a poignant tale of strength and courage as the four siblings support and encourage each other to keep going, eventually deciding to enrol themselves at school and get part time jobs in order to save money for food and eventually for a ticket out of Welch. Their parents are unconventional at best and downright dysfunctional at worst. A a reader I felt torn between wanting to embrace the parents for their spirited approach to life and parenting and another part of me was appalled at their lack of concern for the basic welfare of their children (lack of food, warmth etc). Jeannette is lovingly referred to as ‘mountain goat’ by her Father Rex; earning her nickname as she was as determined and sure-footed as a mountain goat when climbing. She has a complex relationship with Rex, who is an intelligent and charismatic man, and is favoured over her siblings. As a result She is not only lenient when it comes to her father’s selfish behaviour (such as stealing her savings to spend on alcohol, or teaching her to swim by continually throwing her into the deep end of a pool), but she is also the most affected by the emotional inconsistency presented by her parents. This adversity made Jeannette more determined than ever to make a success of her life and she dreamed of moving to New York to pursue Journalism.
Although the Walls family have their own set of rules when it comes to living their lives and raising their children, there are many moments that portray a very loving and close knit family. Due to money constraints, the children never had Christmas and/or birthday presents and so Rex would take his children one by one outside into the night and ask them to choose a star – their chosen star was their present and became theirs to keep. A magical moment which, amidst all the anger and resentment, stayed with Jeanette and her siblings as a beautiful positive memory, right through to adulthood. Jeanette clearly loved her father, who was an amalgamation of nemesis and best friend; Rex had an extensive general knowledge which he would share with his offspring, particularly Jeanette.
Jeanette finally makes it to New York, following in the footsteps of her older sister Lori. There are many hiccups along the way, but I’ll let you discover those for yourself when you read this book and I would recommend that you do. I won’t divulge why it’s called ‘The Glass Castle’ either, as this is an integral part of what makes this a unique story of parents who both inspire and inhibit their children. This is a story that will stay with you…
I have only recently watched the film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. I am so glad that I read the book first as although Woody Harrelson did a great job of portraying Rex, the book has an edge of honesty and raw emotion that is lacking in the film. They are Jeannette’s actual words after all. I would recommend watching the film also however…just read the book first!
Take a peek at the trailer…
Main Image by EW.