Book Review – The Crystal Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls demonstrates in her astonishing memoir that poor parenting and abject poverty do not necessarily condemn children to a bleak future of the same. In Scribner’s 2005 “Castle of Glass”, Walls reveals the intimate details of her upbringing within a dysfunctional but loving family.

“The Glass Castle” immediately grabs you with an opening scene in which Walls, as an adult in New York City, sees her mother rummaging through a garbage container from the window of her taxi. Her mother is homeless, one of those bag ladies we all see, but now you suddenly have to wonder how she would feel if that was your mother hanging out on the fringes of our society.

From this shocking moment, Walls transports you to his first memory. She is three years old and suffers a terrible burn to her torso when her dress catches fire while she boils hot dogs on the stove. There is a long stay at the local hospital near where his family currently lives in Arizona while Walls recovers. To the hospital staff, parental negligence is obvious, but Jeannette does not associate the murmur of disapproval around her with her parents.

If any action is planned by social services, we will never know because his father, Rex Walls, plans an early discharge from the hospital in his trademark “Rex Walls style.” This means that you will grab your little girl and skip the hospital bill that you have no intention or means to pay.

Jeannette is taken away with her father, mother, older sister, and younger brother and the family hits the road. It begins just one of many trips the Walls family ends up in rickety trailers and shacks in the deserts of Nevada, Arizona, and California. They stay somewhere for a while until Rex can’t pay the rent or doesn’t want to and they leave town and do it again.

Rex inspired the book’s title with the carefully crafted paper plans for his “castle of glass” that he hopes to one day build. She often reassures her children with the promise of this fantastic home. It’s going to be a solar powered house, but you need to raise the money to build it first, which involves numerous gold prospecting schemes that are doomed to fail. Because panning for gold never pays the bills, Rex also finds work as an electrician or handyman. He’s smart and mechanically talented, but his earnings are inevitably washed away by flash floods of drinking that leave his family perpetually destitute.

In an immersive narrative that plunges you deeper into an almost unimaginable existence of deprivation, we see how Jeannette and her siblings deal with their destructively alcoholic father and beg their mother to function and give them food. The mother, in fact, has a teaching degree, but she can rarely crawl into employability. Although the various rural areas where they live are always desperate for a qualified teacher, the mother cannot bear the work and only occasionally supports it, with the help of her children pulling her out of bed.

The mother’s infrequent wages rarely go to the noisy bellies of her children. Rex will invariably claim his wife’s salary and go about squandering it.

This desperate state continues for years as the children of the Walls sleep in cardboard boxes instead of beds, endure intense fights between their parents and eat whatever they find. Their mother teaches them to swallow spoiled food by holding their noses.

But even amid these horrors of poverty and alcoholism, Jeannette Walls expresses genuine love within her family. They are loyal to each other, and Rex, in his sober moments, is wise, encouraging, and tender with his children.

In her memoirs, Walls brilliantly elaborates her experiences so that we can see the transformation of consciousness that takes place as she grows older. As a child, she does not criticize her parents. She loves them and doesn’t realize how terribly private her life is. But as she and her siblings mature, they definitely realize that their parents’ shortcomings are not acceptable.

Jeannette’s teenage years are spent in West Virginia, where her father retires to his hometown after going completely broke in Arizona. Life for the Walls in West Virginia is gruesome as they occupy a shack at “93 Little Hobart Street.” The roof is leaking. The plumbing is not working. The Walls family buries their garbage and sewage in small holes that they dig. They hardly ever have food. Jeannette goes through high school pulling leftover sandwiches out of the trash, and Rex plays the town drunk. As misery defines their lives, Jeannette’s mother does the most infuriating things. When Jeannette and her brother find a diamond ring, they immediately want to sell it for food, but her mother keeps it to “boost her self-esteem.” And so they continue to starve.

As Jeannette Walls tells the story of her shameful upbringing, you will admire her perseverance and that of her siblings. The children of The Walls eventually take charge of their own lives and support each other in normal adult life in a beautiful display of sibling closeness.

Each page of “The Crystal Castle” will surprise you with the shameless and selfish actions of parents who cannot and will not even try to take care of their children or themselves. Despite his gruesome parents, Walls rarely scolds them with his writing. His love for his parents is often manifested in painful dismay.

Much more happens throughout these astonishing memoirs than is mentioned here. “The Crystal Castle” is fascinating and an impossible book to put down. It is truly a storytelling masterpiece and far superior to the typical bestseller.

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