Jeannette Walls’s earliest memory dates back to age three: She caught on fire while cooking hot dogs for herself. In this spare and lovely memoir, she depicts a largely unsupervised childhood that allowed Walls and her siblings the wild, open-air adventures more befitting a child of the pioneer era. Congenitally restless, Walls’s gifted but alcoholic father and artist mother dragged their children through desiccated mining settlements and Appalachian towns. Sharp descriptions lend the book a Dust Bowl–era quality, as if we might bump into the Joad family at any moment. Walls intensifies the timelessness by omitting any historical context that would nail this down as the ’60s and early ’70s, when other free spirits traveled the land.
The Glass Castle’s power stems from its childlike perspective and unsentimental prose. Early on, the family’s existence takes on a magical cast—middle-of-the-night evictions become an exciting chance to sleep in the desert air. When she and her brother burn down a shed while playing with toxic waste, their father uses it as an opportunity for a science lesson. But eventually, giant holes appear in the mythical aura. Both parents seem unwilling to fulfill their caretaker roles; at one point, the starving sibs discover their mother hiding under a blanket, selfishly gnawing on a chocolate bar. Walls eventually exacts a kind of revenge by becoming a gossip columnist and embracing a conventional life. She feels embarrassed when she sees her mom (now an East Village squatter) dumpster diving. When her mother, equally disappointed, tells Jeannette, “Your values are all confused,” you can practically hear these two very different American dreams smacking up against each other.