"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who seems to be mentally ill. Walls begins the book by explaining what has prompted her to write about her family: after she has "made it" and become a successful writer living in New York, she comes across her mother picking trash out of a dumpster and, in shame, slinks down in her taxi seat and pretends not to see or know her. Later, Walls confronts her mother, asking what she is supposed to tell people about her parents, and her mother replies, "Just tell the truth. That’s simple enough."
Of course, "The Glass Castle" is anything but simple, as Walls attempts to come to terms with her upbringing. The first third of the memoir deals with her young childhood on the west coast, as her parents live as nomads, moving frequently between desert towns, always seeking the next adventure. Walls' mother is the key figure we meet here: an artist and a writer, she seems to live in her own world and doesn't express much concern in the practical realities of raising her children. In a key passage, Walls' mother takes the kids with her to give them art lessons, as she paints and studies the Joshua tree. Walls tells her mother of her plan to dig up the tree, replant it, and protect it so it can go straight. Walls' mother admonishes her, "You'd be destroying what makes it special. It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives its beauty." This appears to be Walls' mother's philosophy of life – looking for the next struggle – as the family willingly gives up its nice residence in Phoenix that Walls' mother had inherited from her family to move to the father's home town – a depressed coal town in West Virginia.
The family's time in West Virginia makes up the next third of the story and depicts a depressed life in a depressed town. It is in West Virginia where the family seems to drift apart, particularly Walls' father, who up to this point, had been worshipped and revered by his daughter. Like Walls' mom, her dad has a lot of imagination; while he takes odd jobs that never last long, his real dream is to strike it rich with one of his inventions. He promises, once he has found his gold, that he is going to build a "glass castle" – his most special project – a great big house for the family to live in. Once in West Virginia, Walls and her brother figure they will make the best of the situation, and they spend a month digging a hole in the ground to serve as the foundation for the glass castle. But because the family can't pay for trash collection, their father instructs them instead to use the hole for the family's garbage. Although she has always been her father's defender, Walls grows disillusioned with her father, eventually telling him he will never build the glass castle.
Determined not to end up like her parents, Walls moves to New York, where the last third of the book transpires. It is here that Walls "makes it," graduating from college, gaining employment as a writer, marrying a rich husband, and settling into a Park Avenue apartment. Interestingly, while Walls has rejected her parents' lifestyle, it is now their turn to reject hers. Her father refuses to visit the Park Avenue apartment, while her mother, after visiting the apartment, asks Walls, "Where are the values I raised you with?" At this point, it is a mystery what values Walls actually possesses. By crafting the memoir around stories of her childhood, we as readers are often troubled, not just because of the content of the stories but because the stories don't provide much in the way of reflection or introspection. It is, in fact, unclear what Walls actually does value – will she continue to identify success with the material trappings of her "normal" life in New York, or will she ultimately reject the conventional life, as her parents did? Without more reflection from Walls, particularly in this concluding section of the book, readers are left to their own interpretation of "the truth" about her parents – are they just a drunk father and a lazy mother, or is there something more to it?
The "Glass Castle" is an addicting page-turner that should captivate any reader. However, without this reflection and introspection from Walls about her childhood, the book misses an opportunity to make a more lasting impact on readers and ultimately fails to reach the level of a work like "Angela’s Ashes." In the end, it is up to readers to make up their own minds about "the truth" of Walls' parents and her upbringing and what it all means. I chose to discount some of her parents' flaws and instead read this book as an homage to her parents. To me, the key passage in the book is when Walls visits a classmate's home in West Virginia and sees the empty walls in the house (in stark contrast to her own home, which is cluttered with paintings and books and decorations) and rejects the notion that her classmate's father, passed out on the couch, bares any resemblance to her own father. After Walls recounts the story to her family, her mother replies that she should show compassion for her classmate because not everybody has "all the advantages you kids do." Although the statement is ironic on its face, as the family fights over the crumbs of a chocolate bar, the distinction is clear: Walls' family may not provide her with much in the way of tangible goods, but they give her things that are more lasting – a belief in herself, a passion for reading and writing, an appreciation for things a lot of us take for granted, and most of all love. In the end, it was not important whether her parents actually built her a glass castle. It was that they gave her the idea of a glass castle. By overcoming her shame for her parents and writing this memoir, Walls seems to recognize this truth about her parents – that, like the Joshua tree, there was beauty in their struggle.