“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening (party), when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster … She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill … To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City … I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.”
This is a startling memoir of a successful journalist’s journey from the deserted and dusty mining towns of the American Southwest, to an antique filled apartment on Park Avenue. Jeanette Walls narrates her nomadic and adventurous childhood with her dreaming, ‘brilliant’ but alcoholic parents.
At the age of seventeen she escapes on a Greyhound bus to New York with her older sister; her younger siblings follow later. After pursuing the education and civilisation her parents sought to escape, Jeanette eventually succeeds in her quest for the ‘mundane, middle class existence’ she had always craved. In her apartment, overlooked by ‘a portrait of someone else’s ancestor’ she recounts poignant remembered images of star watching with her father, juxtaposed with recollections of irregular meals, accidents and police-car chases and reveals her complex feelings of shame, guilt, pity and pride toward her parents.
I expect those of us reading Jeanette Walls’ book, who do not live in the U.S. see this story from a different perspective to those who know her as a journalist. “The Glass Castle” instantly reminded me of Helen Forrester’s “Twopence to Cross the Mersey”; a different place, a different time but both books autobiographies about poverty and parental neglect.
The world in which Jeanette grew up, was not such a shock after reading Bill Bryson’s accounts of life in some parts of the U.S. but it does seem amazing that the children managed to escape being taken into care. What is surprising is her ability to describe her upbringing in such a lucid, unemotional way. It is clear that her dysfunctional parents were imaginative and talented and that her father, at least, cared deeply for her except when his alcoholism caused him to act despicably. It is difficult to imagine how she could forgive him when he stole their savings and he certainly never built the glass castle, but at least he taught her how to dream.
Jeanette’s mother was much more difficult to empathise with. A self-confessed “excitement addict”, she seemed to have no maternal instinct at all. What she did have was a close bond with her husband even when he let them down, probably because of her inclination for self-destruction whenever things seemed to be going well.
The stories of life in the desert were fascinating but the events in cold Virginia were much more depressing. And yet, even when being bullied, Jeanette remained positive. The optimistic tone of the book is incredible.
On the back cover, a reviewer has written, “Jeannette Walls has the talent of knowing exactly how to let a story tell itself.” How true. You feel as if you are part of the story not just seeing it through her eyes. A fascinating read.