Jeannette Walls and her siblings grew up with a childhood you wouldn’t believe. Their freewheeling parents almost never held down jobs, were constantly on the run from child welfare agencies and the snooping nose of the government, and didn’t feel compelled to do much in the way of parenting their four children.
The scope of their risks makes for a harrowing read for modern parents. In one episode, the parents drive a moving van and put their four kids in the back, telling the three school-age kids to watch over the infant. When the doors of the van swing open, the kids are clinging to furniture, screaming for the van to stop, and trying to keep a hold on the baby.
In another scene, Walls is cooking hot dogs at age three, pulls the pot of boiling water down onto herself and is so badly burned that she requires skin grafts. She is hospitalized for several weeks, which she remembers as a pleasant and happy time, because of all the attention (and chewing gum) the nurses lavish upon her.When it dawns on the Walls parents that child protection might come sniffing around, they bust Jeannette out of there and hit the road, running to another town. And when the mother sees Jeannette trying to boil another hot dog a few days later, she praises this: Way to get back on the horse! (By this point, I was almost getting desensitized to the idea of the BOILING WATER and moved on to, How many hot dogs is this kid eating?)
Yet Walls writes a surprisingly fond memoir of her first eighteen years, remembering the time her father, flat broke, gave her stars for her birthday; the way their family lived on books and art, the way, when things were good, they hiked and collected rocks and played cards all afternoon.
Such memories are nice, yes, but as a parent — especially one who’s currently up to her eyeballs in this whole raising-of-small-children gig — the whole thing made me squirm. Now, I know it’s hardly literary criticism to read with an eye for moral judgment, and I’ll admit that this will not be my most insightful book review. (The Glass Castle is not my usual type of book — I read it for a neighborhood book club, and we had quite a lively discussion.) But while I found the story fascinating and the resiliency of the Walls children inspiring, I could not get past the horror of these parents. It was 288 pages of cringe for me.
However, the book was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and I can see why. It’s like a train wreck — you can’t look away — and Walls is a good storyteller. She describes her parents as compassionately as she can, which is a feat, and she conveys the pluck of the amazing Walls children. (Jeannette actually makes her own braces in high school, out of paper clips and a large rubber band, and they work! My kids, listen up: you will save us thousands of dollars by constructing your own othodontia. And she and her siblings move to New York City together – without their parents — when the youngest is 12!)
Yet there is very little attempt at reflection, and that troubled me, as if Walls is saying that her parents were grossly irresponsible but she’s alright now. It’s only casually mentioned that the youngest sibling, Maureen (who doesn’t have the benefit of running in the “pack” with her older sisters and brother) becomes addicted to drugs and actually stabs the mother (by this point I was also ready to stab the mother), and no attempt is made to understand how Jeannette herself might feel about her childhood now that she’s an adult. Her writerly voice feels almost misleadingly positive and innocent, which works in one sense because we are able to see these events the way she saw them, as a child. Perhaps this was the only way she could write such a memoir without bitterness. But it also makes the story deceptively simple, and I don’t think it’s a simple story at all. After a time this childlike voice made me feel slightly manipulated, as if the book were a compilation of bizarre wrongs committed by adults against children, and she was just setting them out there to see how we felt about them. Like, “All this awful stuff happened, and my parents hardly cared about us, but I loved them! What do you think? Should I be angry?” I felt that she should be angry, but there was no real insight into her feelings, and despite how impressed I was by the young Jeannette Walls, the writer Jeannette Walls remained a mystery to me.
The fiction writer in me wants more — wants to understand more about Walls now, and about the fallout from a childhood like this. I don’t think a fiction writer could have gotten away with ending the story where Walls did. Maybe that’s more an essential difference between fiction and creative nonfiction — fiction has to push things deeper, wrangle with meaning, because the possibilities are endless and finding the right track is the name of the game, whereas sometimes nonfiction gets off the hook by saying, “Well, this is what happened and that’s how I remember it.” Now, the best creative nonfiction will push for meaning as far as it can, too, but Walls — perhaps because her mother is still alive when she’s writing; perhaps because it’s simply not her style — gives you the events of her childhood, The Education of Jeannette Walls, and it’s definitely a riveting tale, but for me it didn’t go quite deep enough, and it ended too soon.