When I learned that our next book club selection was going to be a memoir, I was excited. Ever since I was a child, I have loved reading biographies and autobiographies. As I started the book, however, I could tell that this was no ordinary life that I was reading about.
Born in 1960, the 2nd of 4 children to Rex and Rose Mary Walls, Jeannette and her family lived the ultimate bohemian lifestyle. Both of her parents were intelligent, self-taught, and talented–her mother even had a teaching certificate–but they simply did not like to work to support their family. Rose Mary painted and wrote, although never once in the book does it say that she ever sold any of her creations. And Rex? Rex drank. A lot. He and Rose Mary had a volatile relationship, but they were also birds of a feather, always off finding that next adventure, never worrying about annoying things like the mortgage or even putting food on the table. (I’m convinced that both of them suffered from some sort of mental illness.) There were times when Jeannette and her siblings would go for days eating only popcorn or beans. She became an expert at rooting through trash and eating her classmates’ discarded sandwiches, as well as fending off their embarrassing questions. Her younger brother did the same. When young Jeannette was in the hospital after burning herself, and when Rose Mary gave birth to her 4th child, Rex would employ his “skedaddle” method. It is exactly what you think it is–springing his family to avoid paying the bills.
In fact, the “skedaddle” is what kept the family moving for the first decade of Jeannette’s life. Rex Walls was all about avoidance, denial, and broken promises. It is heart-breaking, infuriating, and exhausting to read. But the book has that train wreck quality. You cannot stop reading it. I will admit, however, that there were times when I would need to take a break from it for several days. The extreme deprivation these kids suffered would take its toll on me. Yet, the author does not write like she is asking for sympathy, and their poverty created a strong streak of resourcefulness in all of them.
The light at the end of the tunnel for me was knowing that, one by one, Jeannette and her siblings eventually escaped their parents and carved out lives of their own. Amazingly, only one of the four turned to substance abuse and continues to lead a troubled life. Even more amazing is that the kids have forgiven their parents and have a relationship with them (Rex died in 1994.) As the author states in the following video, you can either look at the Glass Castle as another one of Rex Walls’ drunken promises or as a hope for the future. No matter how dire things became, those kids retained that glimmer in their eye that life could be better, and they didn’t stop trying until it was.