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Whispers between the Lines

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The power of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle whispers from what she doesn’t say, as she recounts her harrowing, nomadic family life from Arizona to Nevada to California, back to Nevada, back to Arizona, all the way to West Virginia, and then finally to New York.

Her almost journalistic account of the life of a child of dysfunctional but functional, selfish but loving, parents matches the barren beauty of the desert West where her story begins: “The only animals that could survive around Midland were lipless, scaly creatures such as Gila monsters and scorpions, and people like us.” (p. 37)

One way she keeps her memoir from becoming maudlin is by infusing it with the hopefulness of a child: “We’d get up at dawn, my favorite time, when the shadows were long and purple and you still had the whole day ahead of you.” (p. 54)

The author makes it clear that her parents often expressed a kind of love, back-handed though it was, for their children: “’Finest damn kids ever walked the planet.’” (p. 55)

Her vivid descriptions of food bring a physical quality to life with poor parents: “[W]e’d … order hamburgers or chili dogs and milk shakes and big plates of onion rings that glistened with hot grease.” (pp. 55-56)

Glowing about a hospital stay for burn treatment, she shows the reader how her own home failed to provide the security a child craves: “I wasn’t used to quiet and order, and I liked it.” (p. 11)

But she also shows how the parents nourished their children’s minds, even in unhelpful circumstances: “After dinner, the whole family stretched our on the benches and the floor of the depot and read, with the dictionary in the middle of the room so we kids could look up words we didn’t know.” (p. 56)

She shows the need for a reason, no matter how absurd, for children to be proud of their parents: “’When my daddy passes out, he never pisses himself.” (p. 83)

Yet at other times she conveys how it fell to her and her siblings to parent their parents: “Miss Beatty threatened to fire Mom, so Lori, Brian, and I started helping Mom with her schoolwork.” (p. 74)

She shows how a grasping parent markets, rather than gives, teaching to her children: “In exchange for our help on her reference library, Mom gave us all art lessons.” (p. 98)

She gives the impression that her family has some past connection to finer things and that her parents tried to instill an ability to recognize and appreciate them: “Billy’s ring looked like one of my Mom’s. I ran it across my teeth and tongue like Mom had taught me to. I could tell by the slightly bitter taste that it was real silver.” (p. 84)

She demonstrates the strange half-way given-up attribute of parents who don’t take obvious steps to improve matters: “Dad decided that the termite infestation was so severe nothing could be done about it. We’d have to coexist with the critters. So we walked around the hole in the living room floor.” (p. 101)

Through witty descriptions of places and events, The Glass Castle takes the reader on a journey through a troubled but hopeful childhood.

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