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'The Glass Castle' - a memoir

Always fond of a good memoir, I was pleased to see ‘The Glass Castle’ pop up on our book club list. Written by acclaimed American journalist, Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle is a confronting account of her nomadic, unorthodox and poverty-stricken childhood across America. A brave recollection of wild adventures, pure survival and at times parental neglect, the story is a far cry from my relatively sheltered upbringing, or that of my children.

At times through the book I thought, wouldn’t it be liberating to let my children roam in the carefree, intrepid way the Walls siblings did, fending for themselves and facing life head-on? But at other times, I felt saddened and shocked by the neglect suffered by these children at the hands of their parents. Yet because the book was told in a fairly upbeat and at times comic tone, layered with the fairy-tale, ‘glass half-full’ perspective of the parents, with an almost matter-of-fact narrative, it softened the blow of their sometimes painful existence.

There was no heavy, regret-filled, or resentment-filled analysis by Walls in looking back on her life – she just recounted the facts as she remembered them in great detail. So instead the reader also looks at the Walls family way of life a little less judgementally, and instead focuses on the ingenuity of these children, taking on board their optimism and gutsy determination.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

The story reveals the resilience of the Walls siblings not only on a day to day basis, coping with an alcoholic, destructive father and a passionate, unbridled free spirit for a mother, but also their long term drive to escape their dead-end home life. One by one, the siblings escape to New York to live out their dreams.

I found it interesting to see the author, after fleeing to New York, ultimately create a stable, functional life for herself that includes many of the positive aspects from her childhood life – sustainable rural living, self-sufficiency and the pursuit of creative endeavours. In a nod to her parents, Walls embraces the passion she inherited as a girl and demonstrates a fierce intellect and emotional intelligence.

Despite the children fleeing their parents, the story demonstrates the unconditional love of the family and the strength of Jeannette Walls to ultimately share her unconventional past, which for years while living a ‘normal’ life in New York she felt compelled to hide.

An easy yet engaging read and ultimately inspiring, the memoir is an eye-opener to a way of life I’ve certainly never been exposed to before. It reinforces the old adage that nothing is quite what it seems. Indeed, we never know the story behind someone until they share it with us. I highly recommend it.

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