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Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott

The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls



The curtain rises and shining from the stage the audience sees a little girl standing before a stove, cooking hotdogs. She's too short to reach the burners, because she's only three years old, so she's perched on a chair. When she extends her hand down to feed the family dog, her frilly pink dress catches on fire. She shrieks and the sound of her pain draws her mother into the scene. Mother smothers the flames with a scratchy wool blanket. The curtain falls.


Jeannette Walls' compelling memoir is like watching a piece from the Grand Guignol Theater. One appalling and shocking scene after another flits across the page. Readers will be astonished and transfixed by moments from Ms. Walls' childhood, unable to close the book, despite a constant flow of upsetting and outrageous anecdotes. Each vignette builds on the last until we see the vibrant whole, a family whose lives are determined by the wind and the blood-alcohol level of their father.


The Walls family floated from one town to the next, always on the run from landlords, bill collectors, or cops. The father, a smart, drunken, violent, charming mess keeps one step ahead of collapse as the mother shrugs and paints and dreams her way though life. Deprived of adequate food, medical attention, and parental supervision the four Walls' children raise themselves, while being pulled from place to place by alcoholism and adventurism.


The father dreams of building the perfect house, a glass castle. But his dream turns into a pit of rat-infested garbage behind the family's tar-paper shack, a testament to grandiosity, missed opportunity, and the cruelties of capitalism.


With sparse reflection and no self-pity, Ms. Walls creates a riveting look at grinding poverty through the eyes of a child. The terrible family toll of active alcoholism, with all its disfunctionality and unmanageability, is so coolly told that readers have to admire the author's miraculous struggle to shape her own life.


Ms. Walls' well-written book is worth the read, if only to see how far she's traveled.


Copyright © Deirdre Sinnott, 5/10/06.

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