Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: The Glass Castle

Title: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Rating: A

Book Summary (from the back flap): The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette's brilliant and charismatic father captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing--a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

Review: I read The Glass Castle as assigned reading for a composition class, so my take on the book was more critical than normal (I know it's hard to believe) because I knew I was going to have to write a summary/strong responses to one of the themes in the work. However, I truly enjoyed reading this--Walls is a master writer. Jeannette Walls uses plot, setting, character, and theme harmoniously and, at times, ironically to captivate you and lead you to understand the inner workings of this idiosyncratic family.

One key component in the book is the parents' perspective on life and their nonjudgmental attitude, a theme that is so deftly drawn out that you find yourself being compassionate and empathetic toward nearly everyone (maybe not so much Erma Walls and Uncle Stanley, but you realize that even the darkest of people have had experiences that have shaped who they are). As a young child Jeannette was drawn to stories of suffering and triumph (i.e., A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and she sought out experiences with others in her community that created a broad landscape of understanding hardship, suffering, coping, and survival.

The dedication of the book is probably the most succinct expression of this book's intended message, "To John [her current husband], for convincing me that everyone who is interesting has a past." Jeannette uses her life experiences to teach readers to appreciate life, understand the impact that we have on others, and the value of love and family. Walls does a good job of weaving in the experiences of her sisters, brother, and parents to compare/contrast and create a rich tapestry of life and understanding.

This book is an excellent example of writing--watch for how their homes and the various settings used throughout the book serve as symbols of their greater life experiences--and provides a great jumping-off point for exploration of other topics in modern culture such as voluntary homelessness, the effects of alcoholism, social responsibility, coping mechanisms, etc., etc., etc.

This book is destined to be an enduring work, a time capsule of life in the 1960's for the low income and rural residents of the United States. The work is clear, easy to read, and engaging. I only marked the book down slightly (from an A+ to an A) because of my skepticism of the truthfulness of the dialogue and adult motivations as interpreted by a 3-year-old. All in all, a great work and a great testimony to the capacity of the human spirit.


Anonymous said...

Neat composition class! I have had this book on my list of books to get, but I lack the time to read it. Great make me want to run out and get the book, like right!

Heather said...

The class has been really great... it's reignited my passion for writing, and I've resumed my work on my YA novel I've been lingering on for far too long.

This book was really great and it's a quick read that you won't want to put down.

Thanks for the faithful reading/commenting, you're great J.Kaye.