The Class Castle
by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town—and the family—Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
This, this is how you write a memoir. Like I mentioned in my review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, memoirs are tricky in that they require an author to take an honest look at their life, find a coherent story, and tell it in a way that is touching but not overly self-indulgent. Walls achieves this wonderful balance in The Glass Castle.
The writing is excellent. Walls is a journalist by trade, so I would hope that she would be able to tell a decent story, and she can. She sucks you into the world of the underclass and makes you feel sympathetic and at times, incredibly angry. She’s very good at painting a picture with words.
One of the aspects of the book that really makes this work is that Walls doesn’t analyze her life; she lets us do that. She never shares a story and then say what the point of the experience was. She tells her story and lets it speak for itself, which I found incredibly refreshing. It allows readers to look at this book from all different viewpoints. It also assumes some level of intelligence on the part of the reader, which is not always the case. At the very beginning of the book, Walls shares a conversation between herself and her mom, in which she ask her mom what she should tell people about her parents. Her mom’s response? “Just tell the truth. That’s simple enough.” And that’s exactly what Walls does. She tells the truth, though it’s not quite as simple as her mom makes it out to be.
Walls never delves into self-pity or whining, a feat I find remarkable considering some of the tales from her childhood she tells. Things like living in a house without electricty, and indoor plumbing with holes in the floor would definitely draw several complaints out of me. As it is, it makes the book stronger.
I think the best thing about this book is the conversations it can open up. I can see this book being used in a sociology class to discuss the reality of poverty in America. As someone who has worked in low-income areas, I can say that I have been deeply impacted by the seeing the types of events that Walls describes, but I know many who aren’t aware of the reality of what is often called the underclass.
A few notes about this book before I finish:
- I really appreciate that this story was written chronologically. It’s not a requirement for memoirs, not being biographies, but I find memoirs often work better when the stories are linear.
- I think this book would benefit from a much better cover. I feel the cover is plain and doesn’t give a very accurate impression of the book at all.
- I find it wonderful how fair and even I think Walls was in evaluating her own family.
Final Impression: This is a solid memoir that opens the doorway for conversations, weaves an interesting tale, and does it tactfully(remarkably so). 4/5 stars.