Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Glass Castle - Audiobook Review

The Glass Castle is the unforgettable and sometimes absolutely unbelievable memoir of Jeannette Walls, successful journalist, writer and past reporter for CNBC.  Jeannette, her older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and baby sister Maureen survived a nomadic childhood reared by an alcoholic but brilliant father, Rex and artistic but psychologically damaged mother, Rosemary.

From Phoenix, Arizona to California to Battle Mountain, Nevada and finally all the way across the country to Welch, West Virginia, Jeannette's family struggled to survive.  Refusing to accept outside help but curiously also refusing to take advantage of resources that actually were theirs for the taking (Rosemary had a teaching degree and could and did get teaching jobs easily, Rex was a trained electrician and was given many chances to hold a job, Rosemary's mother was more than willing to help them, and Rosemary owned land in Texas worth a million dollars that could have easily been sold), Rex and Rosemary Walls saw their daily hardships and even their children's hunger and daily scrounging for food as "adventures" and valuable lessons in self sustainability.

The story begins with successful adult Jeannette Walls on her way to a party, spotting her mother digging through the trash in New York City.  This event sparks Jeannette's difficult childhood memories as well as adult memories of repeatedly trying to help her parents out of their homelessness to no avail. 

Jeannette's childhood memories begin with a 6 week stay in the hospital after burning herself while cooking hotdogs.  She was 3 years old at the time.
As Rex and Rosemary become more and more agitated with the nurse's questions and discussions with their daughter, Rex makes the decision to "check out Rex Walls style" with Rosemary waiting in an idling car for him as he runs through the hospital with Jeannette cradled in his arms.  A customary "skedadle" in the middle of the night to avoid bill collectors and question askers takes place not long after.

Thus begins a pattern of behavior that continues throughout the book.  Rex and Rosemary move to another town, both work for a while until Rex gets fired for being drunk or getting into a fight or Rosemary refuses to get out of bed in the morning because she wants to paint rather than teach. 
When there is no money coming in, their children scrounge leftover lunches from the garbage cans at school and are shunned by their classmates due to a lack of personal hygeine, the result of no running water or electricity most of the time.

Jeannette is the last of the 4 children to lose faith in her father.  Rex tries several times to get sober but fails.  Jeannette finally realizes just how far gone her father is when he allows a gambling buddy to try to take advantage of her at age 13 in exchange for $80.  Rex's only excuse for his behavior is that he "knew his Mountain Goat could take care of herself."

Even after Rex steals his children's "get out of Welch" money, Lorie escapes first.  After graduation Lorie babysits for a couple who are traveling and drop her and her design portfolio off in New York at the end of the summer.  Once Lorie gets a job and an apartment, she sends for Jeannette who leaves Welch High School at the end of her junior year, and Brian soon after.  After much discussion Lorie also is able to convince Rosemary to send much younger Maureen to finish school in New York.

Lorie becomes an artist working in graphic design, Jeannette is a part-time journalist while attending college, and Brian works to save money until he is old enough to enroll in the police academy.  Once all three of the older Walls children have re-established themselves in New York, they are surprised one day by their parents who have also relocated to NYC. 

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to reunite their family, the Walls children have to come to terms with the fact that their parents choose to live the way that they do and that they cannot "save" their parents from themselves.

My Thoughts:
The Glass Castle was my first foray into the world of audiobooks.   I'm a book snob...not in the sense of good literature vs. bad literature...but into the books themselves (notice how I personified books).  I love technology; I want all of it...but I want books too! 

I had to drive my oldest daughter across two states a couple of weeks ago so I decided to take the audiobook plunge in order to stay sane.  Our school book club read The Glass Castle a year or so ago, but I was unable to stay on track.  A colleague of mine still had the audiotapes in his office so I grabbed them on the way out the door.  I wasn't sure how I would feel about someone reading to me.  I love the written word, the smell and feel of a book...yes, books have smells :) 

Barely five minutes into the story I completetly forgot that I was not actually reading the book.  I quickly became engrossed in Jeannette's experiences.  A three year  old child cooking her own hotdogs and having intelligent conversation with the hospital staff hooked me immediately.

Walls storytelling abilities are absolutely incredible; her ability to describe a scene and the personalities of her siblings so that I felt as if I knew each of them personally made the experience of listening to this story possibly even more intense than reading her words myself.  Just as soon as I was ready for social services to race in and save the children from their insane parents, Walls would describe another episode that made me realize that Rex and Rosemary really did love their children and believe that what they were doing for them was for the best. 

And, then I would feel even more conflicted about this story. 

No doubt that these children's experiences with their parents were not examples of how children should be raised, but I can see how each of the children grew up to be who they were through those experiences.  Their experiences actually made them stronger.  So, does that mean they would have been different people altogether had they not grown up the way they did?  Was it all worth it? 

I can't believe I just asked that question.

What I think Walls does best is description.  She doesn't tell the reader that life was hard; she paints a picture for the reader to see how hard life was.  She doesn't spend chapter after chapter about the sociological and psychological ramifications of her family.  She describes her experiences, and the reader gets to figure all that part out.  

One example that I am still carrying around with me is when Jeannette's professor from prestigious Barnard College asks her which of two textbook causes are the main reason for homelessness.  Jeannette is chastised by her outraged professor for her response that "choice" may in fact be an overlooked cause of homelessness and angrily asks Jeannette, "What do you know about homelessness?"  Jeannette silently endures the professor's outrage and chooses not to explain her response. 

Over and over again, Jeannette chooses not to be a victim.

I was still listening to The Glass Castle when I arrived to pick up my firstborn.  When the first bus pulled up, I begrudgingly turned off my car and went outside to wait on my kid.  When I realized she wasn't on the first bus and was assured that she would be there a few minutes later on the 2nd bus, I jumped back into my car and cranked the story back up.  Even more than halfway through the story, my firstborn was drawn in on the way home.  We are still using phrases such as "checking out Rex Walls style" or making references to dysfunctional families and how our family must really be ok despite all of its intricasies. 

The Glass Castle is a story of survival and an example that what we think we see and know about the rest of the world outside our own experiences and comfort zone is not always what it seems.


  1. Wow...this book sounds really interesting. I love to read about people's true life stories..especially if they are unique like this one. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. This remains one of my favorite memoirs I've ever read. You did it justice with your review. It is just amazing what those children went through and how they were able to survive and thrive after a childhood like that. Well done!

  3. I think it's the title but I've always gotten this one confused with Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.