The Glass Castle

Gorgeous memoir by Jeannette Walls that I knew was going to be good when I saw there was still a queue for it at the library, over 10 years since its publication.

She turns a truly wretched childhood into story gold by giving us a no-holds-barred look at the crazy upbringing her parents put her through. Bohemian is too prim a word for it. When she was four years old and sister Lori 7, they were parked outside a bar for hours while their parents drank inside. They started counting the number of places they’d lived, after having to define “lived” as having unpacked your things instead of just staying somewhere for a couple nights. They gave up after counting 11 places. “We couldn’t remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.”

Their dad was a drunk who fancied himself an entrepreneur, always one step ahead of the law and frequently rousing the family for a middle-of-the-night escape. He took advantage of the lack of technology in one town to withdraw all his money from a bank teller inside the bank while his wife simultaneously withdrew the same amount from the drive-up teller. The mom fancied herself an artist, splurging on art supplies when there was no money for food. In one particularly terrible scene, the 4 kids are sitting around trying not to think about how hungry they are when they notice their mom keeps ducking under a blanket. Turns out she’s eating a huge chocolate bar.

They wind their way through the desert, survive a fire in an SRO in San Francisco, watch their dad gamble away their money in Vegas, then set up house for a time in an old mining town. Once their dad gets (inevitably) fired, they start to starve. For some reason, the mom never mentions that her mom died, leaving her a house in Arizona and money, which they eventually tap into. There’s some mysterious check that arrives from land in Texas that the mom now owns, later found out to value $1M. And yet they starve, and they head to the dad’s hometown in West Virginia where things just get dilapidated. The sisters start working jobs and saving cash so they can escape to NYC, but the dad steals it and drinks it away. Eventually, they make it out, send for their brother, and then their little sister. A few years later, the parents end up in NYC as well, eventually becoming homeless as they get evicted from various living arrangements. They end up as squatters, the dad has a heart attack, the family breaks apart and then comes back together.