Why I Read It: I had the pleasure of reading Jeannette Walls‘ book The Glass Castle some years ago and was greatly impressed by it.
Where I Got It: A review copy from the publisher (thanks!).
Who I Recommend This To: If you enjoy a mix of harsh reality and humor in a coming of age story, this is worth your time.
Narrator: Jeannette Walls
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2013)
Length: 7 CDs
Bean Holladay, 12 year old, lover of chicken pot pies, is our narrator for this tale set in 1970. Bean and her older sister Liz have an artistic and temperamental mother, Charlotte, who often feels the need to take off for a while to get her head straight. She always leaves the girls money for food while she is off pursuing her Los Angeles singing career. However, one day Bean catches her mom in a big, elaborate lie and Charlotte has a bit of a melt down and leaves the girls for several weeks before they decide to take a bus to Virginia, where their uncle Tinsley lives. Soon the girls are uncovering family gossip, history, and secrets that Charlotte had always skimmed over with her daughters. Meanwhile, uncle Tinsley had become something of a recluse since loosing his wife and at first he isn’t too sure what to do with the girls, other than feed them venison stew for dinner. As the days stretch into weeks, they realize the three of them will be together for a while. Once the girls get summer jobs, followed by school starting, live becomes pretty intense for all of them.
Let me just say up front that Jeannette Walls is excellent at digging those deep, dark, complex emotions out of me. She at once makes me uncomfortable and yet feel human with her ever insightful writing. The Glass Castle was a super intense read for me and I see that Walls has honed her story telling ability even further. She tells the story simply, directly, through the voice of Bean (a nick name for Jean). All the good and the bad is laid bare and naked before the reader. Charlotte is a beautiful, creative person. She is also a mother who often considers herself before her kids, taking off on this whim or that to pursue her singing or to a month=long spiritual retreat. The sisters are extremely dedicated to each other and the reader sees right away that they have had to grow up before their time, being the responsible adults in the situation.
Having trucked themselves out to Virginia, so much family history that had to this point been denied to them starts to unfold. Bean and Liz didn’t share the same father and Bean learns, over a mistaken case of peach thievery, that she has family in town. While they had always known that Charlotte was the daughter of a mill owner, and hence, one of the richest families in the town, the girls learn first hand what that means through uncle Tinsley’s attitude towards summer jobs: the Holladays don’t work for others; people work for the Holladays. However, Tinsley is living in the past as the family sold off the mill some years before the girls come to visit him. Left and right, we see the short comings of each and every human; yet Walls also shows us the power of the heart to look past those inadequacies, prejudices, and bigotry to care and connect with other humans.
At a time of forced integration of the schools, Liz and Bean don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Coming from California, the school they went to often had Hispanic kids mixed in with Caucasians. While they don’t get what all the fuss is about, they see it first hand, experience it with the rest of the town. Additionally, the Vietnam war is still on at this time, and strong patriotic feelings run through the city, again causing Liz and Bean to feel uncomfortable. These historical bits are easily interwoven into the storyline, creating a backdrop for the tale of Bean and Liz.
While the story is told through the eyes of a 12 year old, Walls treats her adults with equality. Some are better at connecting with kids, or treating them like adults but shorter. Other adults demand obedience from anyone they think of as lesser humans, which includes kids. The main antagonist in this story, Jerry Maddox, is a large man, who can talk the truth and secrets out of an unwary person when he uses his charm. He also is a control freak, often bossing his wife around to the point of forbidding her from leaving the house. This is the man Liz and Bean go to work for, which later on leads to disaster.
SPOILER ALERT I have to say I wasn’t expecting the second half of this story to be about an attempted rape and the reaction of family members, friends, the school, and even the town. But it was told very, very well. I often found myself nodding my head as Bean’s narration captures teachers ignoring the teasing she and her sister receive from schoolmates. END SPOILER
Despite the hardships the girls go through adjusting to Virginia, there is much love and friendship to be dug up and nurtured too. The ending wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was greatly satisfying. Life isn’t perfect, but it can still be worthy.
Narration: Jeannette Walls herself read this book and she did a fine job. As the story is told from a single point of view, having a single narrator with a limited character voice range worked.
What I Liked: There are emus; the balance of light and dark; the historical backdrop; Liz is a rhymer; the meaning of the title of the book; the ending.
What I Disliked: For about 2/3 of the book, I had the impression that the girls were a few years younger – perhaps 9 & 12 instead of 12 & 15.
What Others Think: