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Glass Castle (Walls)

The Glass Castle 
Jeannette Walls, 2005
Simon & Schuster
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780743247542

Summary 
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms. (From the publisher.) 



Author Bio
Birth—April 21, 1960
Where—Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Education—B.A., Barnard College
Currently—lives in New York City and Long Island


For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor. (From the publisher.)

Her own words:
When I sat down to write The Glass Castle, there was no doubt in my mind that once the truth about me was out I would lose all my friends and my job. So far, the reaction has been the opposite. I'm just stunned. I think I've shortchanged people and their capacity for compassion. The whole experience has changed my outlook on the world. My brother and I are closer. My sister Lori and I have discussed things we'd never before talked about. I'm back in touch with people I knew in West Virginia whom I hadn't spoken to since I left. My mother wants to correct something in the book: She wants everyone to know that she's an excellent driver.

When I was growing up, I always loved animals. But it was a part of myself that I'd let go dormant as an adult. Writing The Glass Castle, I was reminded of how important animals had always been to me, and that love was reawakened. Not long ago, I rescued two racing greyhounds, Emma and Leopold, and I'm irrationally devoted to them. In the spring of 2005, Jeannette Walls took some time to tell us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith [is the book that influenced me the most]....It had a powerful effect on my view of the world and first made me realize how much of an emotional wallop — and comfort — a book could deliver. I read it when I was 11 or 12 and was stunned that a character created 50 years earlier seemed so similar to me. She loved her father even though he was a hopeless drunk, she lived in a rough neighborhood but found beauty in it, and she was determined to make something of her life.

If [I] had a book club, [we] would it be reading...Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I find books that have a moral and spiritual center, that speak to what is really important and lasting, hugely appealing.

Books are my very favorite gift to give. If you give a book to someone and they really respond to it, you feel you've actually changed their life in some way. I recently gave my father-in-law both volumes of William Manchester's biography of Churchill — and we had long, animated conversations about him and history and the psychology and greatness. If a book really moves me, I'll sometimes buy several copies for friends and give them out even if there's no occasion. I bought The Lovely Bones for four or five people. If someone's not much of a reader, I try to find a book that speaks to one of their passions. Whenever I'm reading a book I enjoy, I always develop a mental list of the people I want to share it with. I love it when people reciprocate; when they call me up and tell me they're reading a great book and can't wait for me to read it. That's how I heard about Gilead.

I write on a 19th-century oak table, in front of a window overlooking a wisteria-covered arbor.... [W]hen I wrote The Glass Castle, I wrote it entirely on the weekends, getting to my desk by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and continuing until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I wrote the first draft in about six weeks — but then I spent three or four years rewriting it. My husband, John Taylor, who is also a writer, observed all this approvingly and quoted John Fowles, who said that a book should be like a child: conceived in passion and reared with care.

I've been a journalist for almost 20 years and wrote one nonfiction book about the history of the tabloid press. But writing The Glass Castle was an entirely different experience. I was writing about myself and about intensely personal — and potentially embarrassing — experiences. Over the last 25 years, I wrote several versions of this memoir — sometimes pounding out 220 pages in a single weekend — but I always threw out the pages. Once I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn't work either. It took me this long to figure out how to tell the story. (From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interviw.)



Book Reviews
The Glass Castle falls short of being art, but it's a very good memoir. At one point, describing her early literary tastes, Walls mentions that ''my favorite books all involved people dealing with hardships.'' And she has succeeded in doing what most writers set out to do — to write the kind of book they themselves most want to read.
Francine Prose - The New York Times


(Starred review.) Freelance writer Walls doesn't pull her punches. She opens her memoir by describing looking out the window of her taxi, wondering if she's "overdressed for the evening" and spotting her mother on the sidewalk, "rooting through a Dumpster." Walls's parents-just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book-were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn't conventionalize either of them. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs and had "a little bit of a drinking situation," as her mother put it. With a fantastic storytelling knack, Walls describes her artist mom's great gift for rationalizing. Apartment walls so thin they heard all their neighbors? What a bonus-they'd "pick up a little Spanish without even studying." Why feed their pets? They'd be helping them "by not allowing them to become dependent." While Walls's father's version of Christmas presents-walking each child into the Arizona desert at night and letting each one claim a star-was delightful, he wasn't so dear when he stole the kids' hard-earned savings to go on a bender. The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn't show. Buck-toothed Jeannette even tried making her own braces when she heard what orthodontia cost. One by one, each child escaped to New York City. Still, it wasn't long before their parents appeared on their doorsteps. "Why not?" Mom said. "Being homeless is an adventure."
Publishers Weekly


Not a blissful childhood: MSNBC.com contributor Walls's alcoholic dad stole the grocery money, and her mother would rather paint than parent.
Library Journal


An account of growing up nomadic, starry-eyed, and dirt poor in the '60s and '70s, by gossip journalist Walls (Dish, 2000). From her first memory, of catching fire while boiling hotdogs by herself in the trailer park her family was passing through, to her last glimpse of her mother, picking through a New York City Dumpster, Walls's detached, direct, and unflinching account of her rags-to-riches life proves a troubling ride. Her parents, Rex Walls, from the poor mining town of Welch, West Virginia, and Rose Mary, a well-educated artist from Phoenix, love a good adventure and usually don't take into account the care of the children who keep arriving-Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen-leaving them largely to fend for themselves. For entrepreneur and drinker Rex, "Doing the skedaddle" means getting out of town fast, pursued by creditors. Rex is a dreamer, and someday his gold-digging tool (the Prospector), or, better, his ingenious ideas for energy-efficiency, will fund the building of his desert dream house, the Glass Castle. But moving from Las Vegas to San Francisco to Nevada and back to rock-bottom Welch provides a precarious existence for the kids-on-and-off schooling, living with exposed wiring and no heat or plumbing, having little or nothing to eat. Protesting their paranoia toward authority and their insistence on "true values" for their children ("What doesn't kill you will make you stronger," chirps Mom), these parents have some dubious nurturing practices, such as teaching the children to con and shoplift. The deprivations do sharpen the wits of the children-leading to the family's collective escape to New York City, where they all make good, even the parents, who are content tolive homeless. The author's tell-it-like-it-was memoir is moving because it's unsentimental; she neither demonizes nor idealizes her parents, and there remains an admirable libertarian quality about them, though it justifiably elicits the children's exasperation and disgust. Walls's journalistic bare-bones style makes for a chilling, wrenching, incredible testimony of childhood neglect. A pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, thoroughly American story.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Though The Glass Castle is brimming with unforgettable stories, which scenes were the most memorable for you? Which were the most shocking, the most inspiring, the funniest?

2. Discuss the metaphor of a glass castle and what it signifies to Jeannette and her father. Why is it important that, just before leaving for New York, Jeannette tells her father that she doesn't believe he'll ever build it? (p. 238).

3. The first story Walls tells of her childhood is that of her burning herself severely at age three, and her father dramatically takes her from the hospital: "You're safe now" (p. 14). Why do you think she opens with that story, and how does it set the stage for the rest of the memoir?

4. Rex Walls often asked his children, "Have I ever let you down?" Why was this question (and the required "No, Dad" response) so important for him — and for his kids? On what occasions did he actually come through for them?

5. Jeannette's mother insists that, no matter what, "life with your father was never boring" (p. 288). What kind of man was Rex Walls? What were his strengths and weaknesses, his flaws and contradictions?

6. Discuss Rose Mary Walls. What did you think about her description of herself as an "excitement addict"? (p. 93).

7. Though it portrays an incredibly hardscrabble life, The Glass Castle is never sad or depressing. Discuss the tone of the book, and how do you think that Walls achieved that effect?

8 Describe Jeannette's relationship to her siblings and discuss the role they played in one another's lives.

9. In college, Jeannette is singled out by a professor for not understanding the plight of homeless people; instead of defending herself, she keeps quiet. Why do you think she does this?

10. The two major pieces of the memoir — one half set in the desert and one half in West Virginia — feel distinct. What effect did such a big move have on the family — and on your reading of the story? How would you describe the shift in the book's tone?

11. Were you surprised to learn that, as adults, Jeannette and her siblings remained close to their parents? Why do you think this is?

12. What character traits — both good and bad — do you think that Jeannette inherited from her parents? And how do you think those traits shaped Jeannette's life?

13. For many reviewers and readers, the most extraordinary thing about The Glass Castle is that, despite everything, Jeannette Walls refuses to condemn her parents. Were you able to be equally nonjudgmental?

14. Like Mary Karr's Liars' Club and Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin', Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle tells the story of a wildly original (and wildly dysfunctional) family with humor and compassion. Were their other comparable memoirs that came to mind? What distinguishes this book?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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