If you’ve ever thought to yourself, my life would be different if only I had ________ as a child, then you should read this memoir. It will shut you right up.
Yes, Jeannette Walls had a creative mother and a loving father with a progressive intellect. But she also had a negligent mother and an alcoholic father, neither of whom could hold down jobs or take care of their children or keep promises. Like the Phoenix from the ashes, she rose from the garbage.
As a three year old, Jeannette spent six weeks in the hospital, receiving skin grafts after burning herself while cooking hot dogs because her mother was busy painting and she was hungry. We are programmed for survival. Her father busted her out of the hospital when he’d had enough. They pulled up the roots of their trailer home and ran out of town. Most of her early years were spent on the move like this.
As a school-aged child, Jeannette Walls fed herself by digging through the garbage cans in the cafeteria, post-lunch. One girl’s trash is another’s treasure. She hid in the bathroom stall to feast on her scavenged goods. If you’ve ever been hungry to your bones (and if you haven’t), you can probably recognize the ingenuity and honesty in her method. Even if she got caught, it wouldn’t be as bad as getting caught stealing. Her parents were determined not to take hand outs. When a young Jeannette presented a plan to live off of food stamps, they dismissed it in favor of letting their four children go hungry. (Except for the youngest, who took refuge with friends. Interestingly, she’s the one having the hardest time as an adult.) Meanwhile, their mother hid king-sized Hershey’s bars under her covers. The family buried their trash in a hole in their backyard. A hole dug by Jeannette and her siblings, intended to be the foundation for the dream house their father designed and swore he would build. The Glass Castle.
As an adult, Jeannette Walls writes about her childhood, and the book becomes a best seller. She includes a recent-day story: on her way to something important by NYC standards, she spots her mother digging through dumpsters. Looking for the trash that has transcended into treasure. They both live in New York, but Jeanette has a comfortable apartment while her mother lives on the streets. Still refusing handouts besides a hot meal, still refusing to sell her land in Texas. Even homeless people can be worth millions.
The sight of her mother, separated only by the taxi in which Jeannette travels (and hides), triggers something painful in the deep, dark recesses of Jeannette’s subconscious. She doesn’t want people to know her mother is the dirty one in the dumpster. I think this book was how Jeannette came to terms with her origins. We can never forget where we come from. If we try, our past will impede on our present. But if we acknowledge it, we may be able to learn from it.
Now, Jeannette is a best selling author. Many people will read anything she writes, because she wrote The Glass Castle. What a gift. She took her father’s empty promises, and the lingering traces of a family’s love, and she made something like lemonade.
I give this book five stars. A must-read for anyone fond of memoirs.