Fiction, Non-fiction, Young Adult

Parenting at its worst

There’s nothing quite like reading a book with some truly horrific family situations to make you feel like a stellar parent.  I don’t often read books like this to build up my motherhood self-esteem, since mostly it just makes me sad, but when books are recommended highly enough by people I trust, I do it anyway.

Jeannette Walls’ book, The Glass Castle, is a memoir of her highly unconventional childhood.  Born in the 60’s to hippie parents, her father constantly uprooted their family and couldn’t hold down a steady job thanks to his drinking and paranoia.  Her mother was an artist, though it’s unclear whether or not she had any talent, and seemed to have reconciled herself to having a shiftless husband and a bunch of kids she had no interest in.  The kids are left to their own devices, including feeding themselves, which meant often going hungry thanks to never having any money and their father being too proud to accept government assistance.

The time the Walls spent out west seemed almost like a grand adventure and the kids seemed happy despite their bizarre life.  When they became broke and desperate enough to move back to West Virginia and live with Jeanette’s father’s family, the story quickly turned dark.  Part of this is due to Jeannette getting older and realizing how irresponsible and unstable her parents are.  Her mother flatly refuses to get a job despite the fact that her father never will, ever.  Nor will she even consider divorce.  There are four kids in this family and each of them is more aware of the desperate situation they are in then the parents are.  Her father is always working some angle, gambling or drinking away what little cash he has.  Jeannette is able to forgive and love her father despite so many of his faults, but when he uses her as bait to work a con on a gambling partner, that changes things permanently for her.

Jeannette and her siblings learn how to cope, work hard, and get by with only each other’s help.  Their youngest sister is taken in my neighbors and friends, so she is buffered from so much of the harshness of the situation.  When the kids realize that the only escape is to get out, they start making plans.

The way Walls’ tells her stories and memories was riveting, but it was like watching a car accident.  You can’t look away even though you know it’s going to be horrible, terrifying and probably scar you for life.  I kept wondering how she remembered these events with such clarity, but I’m not going to get all picky and wonder if parts were made up.  Honestly, if her childhood was only half as bad as she portrayed it, this woman still deserves every penny she made off her book.

The title is in reference to her father’s plans to build a glass castle for them to live in, something beautiful and energy efficient and perfectly engineered.  His faults were plentiful, but he was a very smart man.  It’s the perfect title, though, because it’s about unrealized dreams and expectations.  It nearly broke my heart to read it, but it did give me an appreciation for my good parents.

I read Uncle Orson Reviews Everything regularly and I love it when he actually reviews books instead of orange juice and office chairs.  He might be a curmudgeon, but he does have excellent taste in books.  He recommended a list of books to be given as gifts and I immediately hopped onto my library’s website to try them out.  If he’s buying these books to give as presents, I thought, they’re going to be good.  One of them was I’ll Be There For You by Holly Goldberg Sloan and stars another family in crisis.  When I went to Sloan’s website to jog my memory about some of the characters’ names, I thought the synopsis for the book was perfect.  I’ll just let you scoot on over and read it instead of re-wording it here.  Yes, I am that lazy.

I loved this book, but my big complaint is that it read like a screenplay.  Well, Sloan writes screenplays for a living, so that’s no big surprise.  I can’t help but think if she didn’t have a background in film that this story could have been told better.  It’s beautiful, suspenseful and full of sorrow, but the pacing felt like a film and the characters seemed like she already had the actors picked out in her mind that would play them perfectly.  I don’t know about you, but if a book is comes across like it’s been written for the express purpose of being turned into a movie (I’m lookin’ at you, Dan Brown), it’s just not as good.  If you can get past that and just enjoy the story, then you’re in for a treat.  It’s a great story with a vicious villain and an empathetic hero.

Writing this review makes me not feel quite so guilty about lecturing my dawdling daughters this morning.  Sheesh, at least I feed them and love them, unlike the parents in these books!  They got nothin’ to complain about!  Too bad these books are way too mature for them to read yet and appreciate how good they have it.



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has written 287 articles on Red Hot Eyebrows.

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9 responses to "Parenting at its worst". Comments are closed for this post.
  • Rachel says:

    I read The Glass Castle a few years ago, and agree that it’s a horror that you just can’t stop looking at. I hope, for her sake, that some of it is fiction, but, like you said, even if any parts are true, it’s a miracle that she and her siblings emerged with any sort of sanity and health. I feel like a much better parent after reading that book as well. I may yell now and then, but my kids are well fed and I don’t hide chocolate in my bed as they starve. I haven’t read the other book, but I have the same beef with books that read as screen plays. I figure I’ll just wait until it’s in the theater and see it the way it was meant to be.

  • Rachel says:

    I think what I found most amazing about this book, aside from her survival, is that she made her parents somewhat sympathetic. I was shocked by all that they did, or didn’t do, but in the end I felt more sad than angry. I generally don’t read a lot of non-fiction, especially if they are tales of woe, but this one managed to keep me rivited.

    • Jenny says:

      What amazed me too is that she still loved her parents and let them in her life, even if in small doses. I don’t know if I could have done that! I might have disappeared and not left a forwarding address.

  • Caren says:

    Very interesting. These sound like the kind of books you really have to be in the right mindset to read. Not a light, cheery thing for the holidays, for sure. So, my question is, are they ultimately hopeful? I have a hard time trudging through something like that if there isn’t something redemptive at the end. Though I’m certainly curious, especially about the autobiographical one.

    • Jenny says:

      Hm, ultimately hopeful? Maybe more like you end up amazed at how not-screwed-up she and her siblings turned out.

  • Pam says:

    Now you have to read Half Broke Horses. It’s the prequel to Glass Castle and much cheerier. Plus it explains how that GC family came to be. I listened to it on audio, great reader.

  • Ali B. says:

    Oh, I just loved The Glass Castle. Jeanette Walls’ childhood was hellish, and her parents were a hot mess, but her storytelling was honest and beautiful. I’ve recommended this memoir to so many. Along with A Girl Named Zippy and Nowhere Near Normal, The Glass Castle is one of my favorites, and I read A LOT of memoirs.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I love Zippy as well and consider it a personal mission to introduce people to Haven Kimmel. I just started reading Half-Broke Horses and I’m hoping it lives up to my expectations.

      What is it about memoirs? I love ’em. I’ve never heard of Nowhere Near Normal, so I’ll have to check that one out.