Raw and honest, a five-star read, this memoir starts in New York with the author, Jeannette Walls, in a taxi, dressed to the nines, on her way to some important event when she sees her mom, in rags, on the street, picking through someone else’s garbage.
Her mom is homeless.
Rather than stopping to help, the author slumps down into the seat and hides. Later, she confesses to seeing and ditching her mom when she and her mom are dining at a Chinese restaurant and her mom is dumping all the packets of condiments on the table into her large purse. Walls asks her mom what she’s supposed to tell people when they ask about her parents.
Her mom says, “Just tell the truth.”
That’s what this memoir does. Walls’ dad, Rex, is a brilliant dreamer and story-spinner. He wants to shut down the corruption in unions, design the next-greatest, green breakthrough in mining or strike it rich prospecting. Then, he’ll build his family a glass castle.
He takes his family on adventures and he’s quick to master, pretty much any job he undertakes; however, he’s an alcoholic. He drinks constantly, confronts authority, loses job after job, and is often in legal trouble. His answer for this is to pack up his family and to flee the city or state.
And something is very wrong with Walls’ mom. She shucks off responsibility. Nothing is ever her fault. There’s a huge disconnect between her thinking and reality.
At three years old, Walls is cooking the family’s hot dogs on a gas stove, when her dress catches fire. Walls is horribly burned while her mom is somewhere else in the house, painting.
Mom is always painting. She blissfully carries on, pursuing her art. Mom, who is a teacher, only looks for work when she and the children haven’t eaten for days. Then, after landing the job, she routinely claims to be sick, forcing her kids to haul her out of bed, to get her to go to work.
Even when she does show up at school, other teachers complain because her classroom is disorderly with students doing whatever they want.
Walls and her sister must do Mom’s teacherly record-keeping and grade her students’ papers, so Mom keeps the job, and the family can eat. Of course, after a short time, Mom quits or is fired.
Mom allows her kids to live in houses without heat or indoor plumbing, and to sleep in cardboard boxes, under leaky roofs. She considers these hardships to be adventures.
Her philosophy is that struggle creates character, and so lack of food and shelter works for her. She seems to be oblivious to her children’s suffering, and mostly okay with her husband spending what little money he does bring home on drink.
It’s amazing that Walls and her siblings survive. At one point, the children conclude that their parents are incapable of living any other way, so they band together and determine they need to save money and help one another escape their horrible living conditions.
Yet, Walls isn’t bitter. She presents her parents, and the close details of their lives without making judgments, letting readers see both her parents’ good, wonderful qualities as well as the many times they don’t behave in ways readers might consider responsible or appropriate.
Still, Walls makes it clear that, as damaged as her parents were, they loved their children.
Although often strained, the bond between family members is incredible. This heartfelt and well-written memoir is a page-turner that will equally inspire laughter and tears. I recommend it.