For many Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt is more a myth than an actual person. In the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. there is a whole floFor many Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt is more a myth than an actual person. In the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. there is a whole floor devoted to American presidents, but just a small wing devoted to our First Ladies, or more specifically their inaugural gowns. While visiting the museum, I picked up a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, with a nice quote that reads something like, "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent." Other than my poster, the only thing I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt was what my grandmother, who grew up during the Depression and Roosevelt years, had told me: "She sure was ugly." When Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters to Lorena Hickok were revealed to the public in 1978, and questions about the true nature of their relationship arose, author Blanche Wiesen Cook, a historian and women’s studies professor, was intrigued to answer the challenge of determining who Eleanor Roosevelt really was. In her book, "Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884-1933," Cook promises to give readers a fuller view of Eleanor Roosevelt – not just the mythic character, but the actual story behind the woman, an independent power in her own right.
"Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884-1933" is, in essence, a feminist reading of the life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt, telling her story chronologically up to 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes President of the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood, as would be expected, is crucial to understanding her identity. Although she grows up in a privileged family in New York – her uncle Theodore is President of the United States – her childhood is "filled with disappointment, alcoholism, and betrayal." Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother casts Eleanor aside as ugly and too serious. Although her father is an alcoholic, Eleanor adores him, as he encourages her to be courageous and bold and wants her to be self-reliant and self-fulfilled. Both of her parents die before she turns 11, leaving Eleanor to be raised by relatives who mostly conform to the ideals in place during the 1890s. It is not until she is sent to Marie Souvestre’s school in Europe that she is first "given permission to be herself." Marie Souvestre is an unconventional feminist and her school is unusual in that it encourages girls to be independent at a time when education is considered to be dangerous to a woman’s mental health. Marie Souvestre’s role in Eleanor’s life is second only to her father's, as Marie Souvestre appreciates Eleanor’s talents and encourages her to discover and develop her capabilities.
Upon graduation, though, Eleanor Roosevelt faces the realities of her time, as she is torn between the new self-sufficient world she has discovered through her schooling in Europe and the traditions of her mothers and relatives in New York. Ultimately, Eleanor Roosevelt accepts her prescribed role as a woman, goes courting, and secretly becomes engaged to her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the chagrin of his possessive mother Sara. Eleanor becomes increasingly dependent on Franklin, feeling "absolutely lost" when he is away. After they are married, Eleanor is forced to move in to his family home with his mother; as a result, she is never able to have her own home and instead relies on her mother-in-law for everything, as she essentially runs their lives and is the loudest voice in raising their children, leaving Eleanor without a role in her own family and without "self-confidence and ability to look after [herself:]." Whereas, to be loved by Marie Souvestre had "meant to display an independent spirit with individual flavor, and a playful imagination," to be loved by Sara "meant to become fully like Sara." It is here that Eleanor loses her identity, mimicking Sara’s views, including "flip, class-bound arrogance and egregious racism."
It is not until 1918, when the "bottom drops out" of Eleanor Roosevelt’s world, that she reflects on her life and determines what she wants of it. While previously Eleanor has had a romantic view of her marriage, upon discovering Franklin’s letters from his mistress, Lucy Mercer, Eleanor Roosevelt becomes dejected and depressed and develops what the author characterizes as anorexia. After a period of reflection and introspection, ultimately she resolves to design herself an "independent life" that serves to meet her own needs and reclaim her separate identity. After 1923, Eleanor and Franklin live essentially separate lives, as Eleanor accepts Missy LeHand’s role as his "second wife" and develops her own separate circle of friends separate from his. While Franklin works toward rehabilitating his legs after developing polio, Eleanor works on her own career and becomes a national figure in her own right, including an important role as an educator, owning and teaching at a progressive school called Todhouse, and encouraging a new generation of female students just as she had been encouraged by Marie Souvestre. Finally, Eleanor seems to complete her personal journey as a woman through her romantic relationships with Earl Miller, her bodyguard, and Lorena Hickok, an esteemed reporter from the Associated Press, who both champion Eleanor Roosevelt and promote her best interests, giving her personal fulfillment. Through these relationships, she is no longer alone, but has the support system she will need to face her next big challenge – the White House.
In telling the arc of Eleanor Roosevelt’s journey to becoming an independent woman, "Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1" is what it claims to be – a life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt through 1933. Although the writing style is dry and the book starts off slowly, it ultimately succeeds in explaining who Eleanor Roosevelt was – her struggles to find her own identify and to put herself in a position of power where she doesn’t need her husband to define her own self-worth. But because the book ends at 1933, we learn more about who Eleanor Roosevelt is and less about why she is such an important historical figure. Also, because this book is necessarily about Eleanor as an independent person, she emerges as a fully-fleshed three-dimensional figure, while Franklin comes off as a flat, ordinary, two-dimensional character. As a result, the book sparks even more questions than it answers. Why did Eleanor marry Franklin? What was the true nature of their partnership? What were her greatest accomplishments? And why should we care about Eleanor Roosevelt? While I had not originally planned to, I now intend to read "Eleanor Roosevelt: The Defining Years, Volume 2" by the same author, as well as "F.D.R." by Jean Edward Smith and "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin to help answer these additional questions and learn not just about who Eleanor Roosevelt was, but why she mattered. ...more
In the first volume of her series on Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Wiesen Cook, a historian and women’s studies professor, introduced us to a compellingIn the first volume of her series on Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Wiesen Cook, a historian and women’s studies professor, introduced us to a compelling historical figure who, after years of living in passive submission to her husband and mother-in-law, had finally broken free to create her own "independent life" – a life filled with careers (teacher, writer, public speaker) and fulfilling private friendships. In volume two, Eleanor Roosevelt faces the challenge of keeping her independent life as she assumes the traditionally social (and passive) role of First Lady. "Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933 – 1938" contemplates Eleanor Roosevelt's life during the first five years of her husband's presidency.
In her first volume on Eleanor Roosevelt, Cook took a feminist approach in asking questions about power, relationships, and identity. Unfortunately, volume two falls short of the first volume, in leaving many of these questions not only unanswered, but sometimes even unasked. Whereas the central theme of volume one was Eleanor's struggle to assert herself as an "independent power," in volume two, we are not just reading the story of Eleanor Roosevelt, but also the parallel story of her husband and his presidency, which places Eleanor Roosevelt in a dependent role as she must work her way into her husband's political circle to gain influence. In fact, too often, volume two devolves into a story of FDR's presidency and Eleanor's reaction to it, rather than the story of Eleanor Roosevelt as an individual, independent agent. Eleanor is often portrayed as dependent on FDR for power, her moods uplifted when his speeches reflect her views and depressed and cold when they don't, particularly when she is shut out from the inner circle and has to learn about what is going on from her own son. While she occasionally dissents from the administration’s talking points, her writing and speaking career is now primarily aimed at advancing FDR's policies. The most disappointing example of Eleanor's capitulation to her husband is on the subject of the Holocaust, where she remains silent from 1933 to 1938. When a German refugee appeals to Eleanor Roosevelt's sense of justice, asking, "Can you really stand by and watch this? Can you stand and see us more or less all gassed? I should like to have your word, you will do something," Eleanor Roosevelt replies, "Unfortunately, in my present position I am obliged to leave all contacts with foreign governments in the hands of my husband and his advisers." Obviously, Eleanor Roosevelt does gain power within FDR's political circle, but it is never clear what the extent and significance of this power really is.
Another central theme in volume one was how Eleanor Roosevelt's relationship with a new circle of feminist and lesbian friends helped her create her own life apart from FDR. After Eleanor discovered FDR's infidelity with Lucy Mercer, and they began living separately, Eleanor established her own new life at Val-Kill, a residence she shared with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. In addition, Eleanor made her first true friend in Lorena Hickok, an established reporter with the Associated Press. In volume two, these relationships all dissolve, as Eleanor acrimoniously splits with Cook and Dickerman and drifts apart from Hickok. Hickok, in fact, is the key figure in volume two, as her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt is chronicled in painful detail. While their relationship is clearly the most important in Eleanor's life during her time as First Lady, it unfortunately takes a bit of a tragic turn as Hickok gives up her job with the AP, and along with it, her self-respect, becoming dependent on Eleanor Roosevelt for work, in addition to financial and emotional support. As Hickok grows increasingly depressed and resentful of Eleanor's other friends and busy schedule, they continue to drift apart, to the point where, when they do share a vacation alone together, Eleanor is miserable, missing her work and eager to return to her life as First Lady. As Eleanor Roosevelt drifts away from the friends who were so important to her in first creating her own independent life, it is clear that her interests and priorities have changed. Her political life is now the most important thing in her life.
What does this say about Eleanor Roosevelt's identity? This is the final question then left to be answered. Unfortunately, the question is never even posed to readers. Does it matter that Eleanor Roosevelt depends on her husband for power and she no longer has an independent role of her own? What does it say that she pulls Lorena Hickok into a dependent relationship where she retains all the power? Why is her public life more important to her than her private relationships? What, in fact, is her new identity? While in volume one, we are left with the image of Eleanor Roosevelt as an independent woman, pursuing her own career interests and developing her own loyal set of friends apart from FDR, in volume two, we are mostly left with an image of Eleanor Roosevelt not as an independent force, but as the First Lady, a woman who keeps a busy schedule and cares for a lot of causes and people, but none in particular.
In focusing on the day-to-day details of Eleanor Roosevelt's life and FDR’s administration, "Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933 – 1938" reads more like a timeline from a boring history text – a list of dates and facts – than a compelling biography of Eleanor Roosevelt the person, her priorities and main accomplishments. In trying to tell two stories – first, of the political movement behind the New Deal and, second, of the role Eleanor Roosevelt carves out for herself within her husband’s administration – ultimately Cook fails to tell either story. ...more
Seemingly hundreds of books have been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Books about Franklin, written from his point of view, can be critiSeemingly hundreds of books have been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Books about Franklin, written from his point of view, can be critical of Eleanor – her tendency to nag, her seriousness, her lack of personality. Similarly, books about Eleanor, written from her point of view, can be critical of Franklin – his deceptions, arrogance, and self-centeredness. "No Ordinary Time, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II," written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, provides a unique perspective in telling the stories of both Franklin and Eleanor, incorporating each point of view into the story, describing them both as individual people and as part of a troubled yet fascinating partnership. Written in narrative form, "No Ordinary Time" chronicles the war years on the home front, beginning in May of 1940 and ending in December of 1945, combining the story of the Roosevelts with that of regular Americans to demonstrate the unique relationship that was created between government and the people, making this truly "no ordinary time" in American history.
In "No Ordinary Time," Franklin Roosevelt is fleshed out as a charming and charismatic figure who comes to inspire the nation through his "ebullient energy" and unlimited confidence, not only in himself, but in the country. Although he came from a wealthy, aristocratic family, Roosevelt was able to empathize with the poor and underprivileged after a bout with polio left him crippled. Although he never allowed himself to be seen in his wheelchair, and most Americans did not realize the extent of his disability, Goodwin describes one poignant scene when the president went to visit troops in Oahu and specifically asked to be wheeled around the hospital ward slowly – to, in effect, put himself, his disability, and his vulnerability on full display, so that troops who had lost arms or legs could see "living proof of what the human spirit could do."
His unique ability to transmit his own perpetual cheerfulness and optimism to others was what defined his leadership. According to Goodwin, more than any previous president, Roosevelt studied public opinion (reading newspapers, analyzing polls, securing different points of view), allowing him to understand the national temperament. Even more than that, he wanted to connect to the American people. Prior to one of his fireside (radio) chats, he asked Americans to buy a map to have before them as they listened to his speech. Americans rushed to buy maps, and eighty percent of the audience was listening to the radio as Roosevelt explained to them the situation in each part of the world, bringing the war to life, so Americans could better understand the challenges they were facing and be more prepared for a new kind of war being fought on every continent. Not only did these fireside chats allow Americans to connect with their president, they allowed Americans to connect them with each other. Describing the scene on the Chicago Midway during a fireside chat, novelist Saul Bellow explained how all the taxi drivers were pulled over by the side of the road with their radios on, so that he didn’t miss a word of the speech as he walked by their cars: "You felt joined to these unknown drivers, [. . . .] not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and finding assurance from it." Through his leadership, Roosevelt inspired a country that had just been through an economic depression and that was woefully underprepared for a global war to come together and re-establish itself as the world’s preeminent superpower.
Like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt also forged a unique relationship with the American people. Although she too had grown up in a wealthy, aristocratic family, unlike her husband she suffered through an unhappy childhood, leading to a lack of confidence and various bouts with depression. She lived a conventional subservient life as Franklin’s wife up until she discovered his affair with Lucy Mercer. At that point, she decided she would no longer depend on another person for fulfillment and happiness and embarked on her own independent life devoted to her own interests, including teaching, writing, and participating in various political causes. She was not a conventional first lady but rather "challenged the traditional sense of what was possible": she was the first wife of a president to hold a government job, testify before a congressional committee, hold press conferences, write a syndicated column, and earn money as a lecturer. She didn’t limit her role to staying at the White House and hosting social events, believing, if she did, she "would lose touch with the rest of the world." Instead, she traveled the country, observing poverty in Appalachia and sweatshops in Puerto Rico firsthand, reporting back to her husband when she found workers making less than minimum wage in one town. She witnessed the devastation of the war herself, also, as she traveled to Britain and to the Pacific. After seeing "the mangled bodies, the stomachs ripped by shells, the amputated limbs, the crushed spirits," she fell into a depression, trying to come to terms with her "emotionally disturbing" trip. Like her husband, she empathized with the American people and, even more than him, was determined to raise the consciousness of our country, fighting against Japanese internment and for women’s rights in the workplace, an increased role for African Americans in the workplace, and less restrictive rules to allow refugees into the United States.
Characterizing Eleanor as the agitator and Franklin as the politician, Eleanor as the one who thought about what should be done while Franklin thought only of what could be done, and contrasting Eleanor’s shyness and insecurity with Franklin’s confidence and sociability, Goodwin makes it clear just how different Eleanor and Franklin were. Realizing their inability to fulfill each other’s needs, they established largely independent lives where they turned to others for comfort – Franklin to his "real wife" Missy LeHand, his gossipy cousins, and his aide Harry Hopkins, and Eleanor to her young political activist friend Joseph Lash and a circle of feminist friends, including newspaper reporter Lorena Hickok. Even after Franklin grew lonely as Missy and Hopkins drifted away and turned to Eleanor in the hopes they could re-establish a more traditional marriage, she refused, later writing to Lash that she felt there was "no fundamental love to draw on, just respect and affection." Yet, Goodwin makes it clear that there was a bond between them that could not be broken. In one particularly affecting passage, Goodwin quotes from Eleanor’s son, who describes the aftermath of his uncle Hall’s death: "'Hall has died,' Eleanor told Franklin simply. Father struggled to her side and put his arms around her. 'Sit down,' he said, so tenderly I can still hear it. And he sank down beside her and hugged her and kissed her and held her head on his chest. . . . . For all they were apart both physically and spiritually much of their married life, there remained between them a bond that others could not break." This bond was not just from nearly forty years of marriage, but from the common cause they were joined in – to better the lives of Americans. In order to advance this cause, they drew strength from each other, together creating a far different America than the one that existed when Franklin Roosevelt first took office.
While it is clear that Goodwin has deep admiration for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, she also establishes them as fully-fleshed characters – visionary, courageous, and brave, but also deeply flawed. In fleshing out their characters, she also succeeds in creating a third character, that of the American people. When Franklin Roosevelt began his second term, one-third of Americans had no running water or indoor plumbing, more than half had no central heating, and only one-fourth had even graduated from high school. America was a "pyramidal society," with a few fortunate on the top and a great mass of people at the bottom. During the war, though, Americans moved from the farm to the factory, from the south to the north, from the east to the west, as war production led to the emergence of the middle class and created the "most profound transition in American history." Most importantly, through innovations like the minimum wage, labor protection, social security, and market regulation, a new relationship between the American people and their government was formed. Franklin Roosevelt’s importance is felt most at the end of the book, as Goodwin poignantly describes the public’s reaction to his death – "everybody is crying" – and the long railroad trip as his body is carried from Georgia to Washington, with Eleanor looking out the window of the train and seeing hundreds of thousands of people whose lives he had touched gathered along the way to pay their tribute. In recounting the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their impact on America, Goodwin shows readers why this was "no ordinary time," creating a vivid portrait of what American life on the home front was like during the second world war and bringing this incredible time in American history alive. ...more
For many of us, watching the events following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfold on our TV screens in August of 2005 was an eye-opening experieFor many of us, watching the events following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfold on our TV screens in August of 2005 was an eye-opening experience. The lasting images of Katrina victims on our TVs telling us of their misery and suffering, while the government seemingly did nothing to intervene, sparked national outrage. In all, Katrina left 1,100 people dead, damaged thousands of residences, crashed the city’s water and sewerage infrastructure, took out electricity and mail service for months, and left four-fifths of the city of New Orleans – seven times the size of Manhattan – underwater. A tragedy on this scale hadn’t struck the United Stance since the San Francisco earthquake, and the victims we watched on the news – stranded at the Superdome or Convention Center or the highway out of town – represented a small fraction of the estimated 250,000 New Orleans residents left homeless by Katrina. In "Breach of Faith," author Jed Horne, a reporter for the local New Orleans paper who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to the paper’s coverage of Katrina, helps explain why this tragedy occurred and what it says about us as a country. Through a series of stories – stories, he says, of heroes, rogues, dreamers, and doers – Horne promises to “provide a lesson for America about itself.”
In fact, these stories are the heart of "Breach of Faith." There is the story of the social service worker watching as chaos descends at the Superdome. There is the story of the New Orleans resident who returns to his family’s home after Katrina to find an X, code for dead, marking the family house, and the story of his struggle for months fighting FEMA bureaucracy to recover the remains of his father for a proper burial. There is the particularly affecting story of the doctor at the city hospital, serving the poorest of New Orleans residents, as the hospital waits for a week to be evacuated, all the while hearing the sound of helicopters rescuing patients from New Orleans’ other, richer hospitals. There is the story of the former levee board president, boating across the drowned city and finding his biggest surprise to be the city’s utter silence – no police, no firemen, no one. And then there is the story of the local paper’s photographer, who also notes the utter lack of help, the utter lack of government presence whatsoever. A fellow photographer takes the famous picture of the woman who will become a Katrina icon as she slumps to her knees, wrings her hands, and begs, "Help Us."
"Breach of Faith" isn’t just the story of Katrina victims, but also of this silence, this utter lack of help for the city of New Orleans. It is the story of the FEMA director who is more concerned with finding a dogsitter and making dinner plans than the suffering on the ground in New Orleans. It is the story of the Homeland Security chief who tells the American people that Katrina was unprecedented and couldn’t have been anticipated when, in fact, the whole scenario had not only been anticipated but simulated in a disaster drill just a year earlier. It is the story of insurance companies not honoring Katrina victims' policies but instead leaving coverage up to the federal government, prompting a lawsuit joined by staunch conservative Senator Trent Lott. It is the story of the Army Corps of Engineers who did such a poor job of constructing levees to protect the city from floodwaters that one scientist compared it to "putting bricks on Jello-O." And it is the story of President Bush, strumming on his guitar in San Diego as all this misery is taking place. Three days after Katrina hits, during his plane trip back to Washington, DC, Air Force One flies over New Orleans, leaving a lasting image of Bush in the clouds, peering out the windows to steal a glance at one of the worst disasters in American history from far above.
Through these stories, Horne puts the reader in New Orleans and provides us with a deeper understanding of this man-made disaster, dispelling media myths and explaining the complex series of events that contributed to cause this disaster. Although structuring his book through these stories is somewhat flawed – it is difficult to keep track of the characters and the second half of the book loses steam in focusing on the technical rather than the personal stories of Katrina – Horne succeeds in showing that Katrina is not just a New Orleans story, but rather it is an American story. These are stories of people anyone can relate to – people like us, in situations that could happen to any of us.
But ultimately the lesson about America Horne promised readers is unclear. "Breach of Faith" begins and ends with the story of Patrina Peters. At the beginning of the book, the 43-year-old mother living in the Lower Ninth clings to a mattress with her daughter, certain that they will both be killed by the floodwaters. Fortunately, they are saved, then dropped off at the Superdome and eventually displaced to a bland upriver town. At the end of the book, Peters decides she misses New Orleans and her church too much and must return – her faith has not been breached. Like Patrina Peters’ story, though, the story behind "Breach of Faith" is unfinished, for we as readers are left to wonder, is Peters' faith justified? Will she make it in New Orleans? According to an article in The New York Times, it is up to us as Americans to determine the fate of New Orleans: will be contribute the funding and vision necessary to rebuild this great city, or will we let it die? This part of the story -- the true lesson about America -- has yet to be written. ...more
"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic fat"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.