The Glass Castle

19.12.2018 in Book Review
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Hard Work Brings Success

Although Jeannette Walls’s “The Glass Castle” depicts the disturbing realities of child neglect, poverty, substance abuse, and social bullying, it also celebrates the value of hard work and mental focus because thanks to them the author could turn the hardships into her personal and financial success by receiving a good education, acquiring fulfilling work and not letting the experiences of her dysfunctional family get the better of her.

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Jeannette Walls comes from an unconventional family of a binge-drinking scientifically-oriented father, Rex Walls, who had no stable job and dreamt of finding gold, and a self-wrapped artistic mother, Rose Mary Walls, who believed that children are able to take care of themselves, and no child would want to trade freedom for comfort. At the same time, Jeannette’s parents were loving, encouraging, and fun to be around, at least in the first years of their marriage. It is only their personal and psychological peculiarities that prevented them from caring about their children, and children had to learn how to do it themselves.

Jeannette’s mother believed in freedom and a constant struggle. Her life philosophy can be summed up in the episode with Joshua tree when Jeannette found a small sapling of it and wanted to replant it near their house to take care of it and grow it “nice and tall and straight” (Walls 24). Her mom frowned on her and said, “You’d be destroying what makes it special. It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty” (Walls 24). Some may call it laziness or indifference, but Rose Mary really believed that each has to live a life of one’s own, and it is better not to get involved. While Rose Mary was constantly wrapped in her artistic development, her children sometimes managed to talk her into taking a teaching job. Then it was up to kids to get their mother out of bed and see to it that she was at school on time. Each of the children did some part of their mother’s job so she could keep the teacher’s job – Jeannette checked students’ homework and tests.

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Hardworking was the quality Jeannette’s mother saw in her as the most prominent feature, “Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard.” Dealing with everyday issues of finding food, fighting bullies at school, and keeping herself warm in an unheated house, Jeannette early matured and had to take responsibilities for the life of hers and her siblings. She cooked hot dogs at three, clutched a newborn in the back of a U-Haul truck for the whole night when the family was on the move, and helped mom check her students’ homework and tests at eight. When Jeannette was thirteen, she began making money babysitting and doing other kids’ homework. In California, the siblings redeemed bottles and beer cans and sold scrap metal to have their pocket money; in West Virginia, they foraged the woods for crab apples, wild blackberries and pawpaws, and stole ears of corn from nearby farms to help the family when there was no food to eat. Once, Jeannette and Brian spent a month digging up a hope for the new house’s foundation so their dad could build them a new house. The children did their best to help parents take care of the family.

In the episode with the child-welfare man, Jeannette was full of ideas how to prevent the social services from taking children away from dysfunctional parents and sending them to different families. She was so persistent demanding from her mother to decide on something that Rose Mary said, “Jeannette, you’re so focused it’s scary” (Walls 110). As Walls’ parents were lacking focus and determination in solving problems arising before the Walls family, the children had to compensate it with their responsible behavior. When the children got older, they understood that not all families struggled with terrible living conditions and were deprived of the bare necessities, and that, in fact, it was not that difficult to keep food on the table. They even offered to be in charge of the budget so that they could scrape by on paychecks their mother received from renting a piece of land in West Texas and the money kids earned by doing odd jobs.

Despite hard-core poverty and deprivation, the Walls family always respected knowledge. All family members were avid readers, and the children were one of the best in their classes. Jeannette was the first seventh grader who was invited to work for the school newspaper. She started working as a proofreader. In the eighth grade, Jeannette laid out pages, and in the ninth grade, she began reporting, writing articles and taking photographs; in the tenth grade, she was made news editor; and a year later Jeannette became the editor in chief. After her junior year, Jeannette moved to New York to finish school there, and then graduated from Barnard College with honors. Miss Bivens, who was Rex Walls’ English teacher and encouraged him in his desire to become a writer when he was her student, said to Jeannette when she was leaving school, “I’ve got a feeling about you. I think you’ll do all right up there” (Walls 134). Jeannette’s gradual progress was obvious to those who were close to her and wished her well. It was the result of hard work and a great desire to be the best at her favorite pursuit and belong to people who shared the same values. 

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Jeannette’s attitude towards her parents is also a result of her intentional work. Given the matter-of-fact tone of the book, it is obvious that Jeannette holds no grudge against her parents despite the hard time she had with them. She has learnt how to understand them and accept their life stance. When she asked her homeless by choice mother how to answer people’s questions about her parents, Rose Mary said, “Just tell the truth” (Walls 7). By writing “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette reinforced her acceptance of the parents. Reliving the same episodes of her childhood, Jeannette made sure that she does not judge or criticize Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Instead of pitying herself and blaming her parents for unacceptable behavior, Jeannette focuses on survival making her life better. Their borderline situations and no adult assistance brought out the resilience and persistence that you need to succeed in life. 

Jeannette Walls’ example demonstrates that a person does not necessary need money and special conditions to accomplish his/her goals. The Walls’ parents were examples of what their children should not do if they wanted to succeed in life. Seeing the kids dreaming about “hot baths, a warm bed, steaming bowls of Cream of Wheat before school in the morning” the reader keeps wondering what would be better for them – comfort life and separation or turbulent life but lived together with quirky parents (Walls 114). Such a dichotomy is the core of the book. It is up to the reader to decide what choice they would make. However, it should be mentioned that such turbulent experience scars. After all, Jeannette does not have children. Despite her ability to take care of herself and others, she was probably scared to prove incapable of it with children of her own.

 “The Glass Castle” is a captivating and disturbing story. The reader goes from admiration of the elder Walls for some of their parenting techniques to pure anger and fury for their selfishness and negligence. For many people, poverty and parental neglect are excuses to live a life of self-destruction and unhappiness, but Jeannette Walls used her childhood experience as a stepping stone to develop the character and as a path towards self-improvement. Apart from many skills and general knowledge Jeanette’s parents taught her, the most important was how to fight for herself. The decision to live differently made Jeannette Walls focus on how to reach her goals. Moving to the city of big possibilities and doing a few jobs while earning her degree, Jeannette proved “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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