As you read Jeannette Walls' best-selling, riveting memoir of a nomadic childhood with an artist mother and an alcoholic father, you will find yourself dancing along the edges of smiles and sorrow -- not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Likely, you will do both.
You identify with Jeannette and her siblings as she tells of being on fire at age three, living in an Arizona trailer park, living in a car, running from creditors, from the government, or from foes, real or imagined.
As an adult, she describes a chance sighting of her mother, now homeless and picking through a New York City dumpster, as the author is on her way from her Park Avenue home to a party.
The story opens.
"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster...Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash...Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the Mom she'd been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud...It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she'd see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out."
Jeannette did not see her mother that night, but she did meet her mother days later at a Chinese restaurant for lunch, Jeannette having phoned her mother out of guilt at having avoided her on the way to the party.
At lunch, Jeannette asks her mother what she needs.
"I could use an electrolysis treatment."
"Be serious...I'm talking about something that could change your life, make it better."
"You want me to change my life?" Mom asked. "I'm fine. You're the one who needs help. Your values are all confused."
The opening gambit sets the stage for the play to come.
Jeannette Walls describes life as a three year old as she knew it: she was long accustomed to cooking hot dogs for herself while her mother painted oils on canvas. Her fancy pink dress, which stuck out like a tutu, caught on fire. The neighbor in the trailer next to the Walls' drove them to the hospital.
Quiet chaos followed at the hospital as doctors grafted skin and nurses took notes on Jeannette's life and why she was allowed to ‘cook for herself a lot' at age three.
Young Jeannette liked hospital life, where she had her own room, a TV where she watched Red Buttons and Lucille Ball, and where she could chew on something she'd never before had: chewing gum. She decided hospitals are OK places that never run out of things such as food, ice or chewing gum. She could have stayed in that hospital forever.
Jeannette's parents married in 1956: her Mom was young and beautiful in a classic, white wedding dress - the delicacy of the dress' lace betrayed a harsh desert life which once had been and which would be again - it was to be a penniless life in which the family ate beans until they spoiled and then spiced the beans to cover the spoilage, just as the Mexicans did.
Jeanette's father, Rex Walls, was extraordinarily handsome, but he took to poker and drink and worked only occasionally - and so, Rex Walls' family lived life mostly on the run.
It is clear Jeannette's parents loved each other, but life is difficult without the money that skills bring, especially when there is contempt for the values a typical American espouses, values Jeannette's parents describe as "Republican."
Jeannette has an older sister, a younger brother, a younger sister and a sister who died years before Jeannette was born.
You root for Jeannette and her siblings as they face dirt poverty, year after year. Jeannette describes her family and its problems with love - her pains are your pains, as your emotions ripple to the surface and you smile between tears that peak out of the corners of your eyes, as you hope Jeannette's life will work out for the better.
Jeannette's family moves from Arizona to Welch, W. Virginia. Jeannette wants to go to college in New York City, but her guidance counselor cautions her against such a bold move, because most people go to college where they live, so her counselor said.
Jeannette does moves to New York but spends a year working before she applies to Barnard, where she is accepted with a scholarship. It is in New York and at Barnard where her life begins to change: her older sister also moves to New York and begins life as an illustrator.
Still, there were problems back home. The title of the book refers to a dream Jeannette's father had of building a castle made of glass that also serves as the chief metaphor for the book. Jeannette's mother lands a teaching job in Welch, but her mother's moods sometimes make it impossible for her mother to get out of bed. Her father has taken to drinking again, and there is Jeannette's younger brother and sister to worry about.
Reading between the lines, one can easily imagine the agony Jeannette must have lived through: that she tells her life with a dose of humor merely adds to the angst that the resilient Walls kids must lived through.
In the end, Jeannette Walls knows what many others in her world do not know: in her journalistic world in New York where many grew up amidst privilege, Jeannette, raised in the desert and in Appalachia, knows her parents are now homeless and foraging amongst dumpsters.
Yet, when a Barnard professor questioned Jeannette as to what she actually ‘knew' about the homeless, the professor asked:
"whether homelessness was the result of misguided entitlement programs, as conservatives claimed, or did it occur, as liberals argued, because of cuts in social-service programs and the failure to create economic alternatives for the poor? Professor Fuchs called on me."
Jeannette replied: "Sometimes, I think it is neither."
When asked to explain herself, Jeannette continued: "I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want."
The professor was not buying it. But this was not the time to wage war against those who did not understand, Jeannette decided, and so, Jeannette simply demurred to the professor's barb,
"What do you know about the hardships and obstacles the homeless face?", and merely replied:
"You have a point."
Likewise, when Jeannette lived with her first husband on Park Avenue where she was invited to dozens of parties a month, and when she loved her job in journalism, one evening, she found herself face-to-face with a woman from the International Best Dressed List.
"So, where are you from, Jeannette?"
"How lovely. What's the main industry in Welch?"
"And does your family own coal mines?""No. "
"And what do your parents do?"
"Mom's an artist."
"And your father?"
"He's an entrepreneur."
"He's developing a technology to burn low-grade bituminous coal more efficiently."
"And they're still in West Virginia?"
I decided I might as well go all out. "They love it there. They have a great old house on a hill overlooking a beautiful river. They spent years restoring it."
You smile at Jeannette's strength and at her success, but tears well up because you recognize the pain she and her family lived through to get to where she is.
So, finally, after friends, family and agents convinced Jeannette that the time was right to tell her story, to just 'tell the truth,' as Jeannette's own mother had implored her to do, Jeannette Walls took to pen and paper and told what she knew was real.
Walls tells her story simply and honestly, with humor and hope.
Always, despite the despair that lingers, lies hope: hope for her parents, -- now her mother -- without her father, who is happy with herself, and hope that even with dirt poverty and despair, that with love and hope, good fortune does prevail.
* * *
"The Glass Castle", by Jeannette Walls, a memoir, published by Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, 2005; first Scribner trade paperback, 2006, New York, NY.