About the Author
Jeannette Walls graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, has been a New York Times bestseller for more than six years. She is also the author of the instant New York Times bestsellers, The Silver Star and Half Broke Horses, which was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. Walls lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.
…”I’ve been a journalist for almost 20 years and wrote one nonfiction book about the history of the tabloid press. But writing The Glass Castle was an entirely different experience. I was writing about myself and about intensely personal — and potentially embarrassing — experiences. Over the last 25 years, I wrote several versions of this memoir — sometimes pounding out 220 pages in a single weekend — but I always threw out the pages. Once I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn’t work either. It took me this long to figure out how to tell the story.”… [Read More]
Videos & Interviews
Meet Jeanette Walls
Author Jeannette Walls[‘] shares a glimpse of her personal story: growing up homeless and succeeding beyond her dreams.
How Book Clubs Go Beyond the Book
Jeannette Walls meets her fans at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, TX and talks about readers’ reactions to The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses.
Jeannette Walls Lets Go of Her Shame
In 2005, the entertainment reporter and Park Avenue socialite came clean on The Oprah Show about a shameful secret she was keeping: Her parents were homeless. Watch part of her interview with Oprah and find out how, when she let go of her secret, she was able to let go of her shame and live to her fullest potential.
When it comes to branding — the kind that marks you for life — corporations have nothing on families. Jeannette Walls’s mother branded her children this way: Lori, the oldest, was the smart one. Maureen, the youngest, was the pretty one. Brian, the boy, was the brave one. And Jeannette? “The only thing going for you,” her mother informed her, “was that you worked hard.”
As I drove onto Walls’s 205-acre farm in Virginia and the Technicolor green grass and trees unfurled to reveal horses in their paddocks, it seemed clear that hard work had lost its power as a put-down. … [Read More]
Time to Skedaddle
“We were always doing the skedaddle, usually in the middle of the night.” Although the author’s father claims his skedaddling is prompted by people who are out to harm his family, her mother says that the sudden departures are triggered by interest in avoiding bill collectors.
Click on the map to experience an interactive Wall’s Family Skedaddle!
Quotes from the Book
“Things usually work out in the end.”
“What if they don’t?”
“That just means you haven’t come to the end yet.”
“I wanted to let the world know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets.”
“One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by.”
“Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realize your potential.”
“No one expected you to amount to much,” she told me. “Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard.”
“We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa Clause myth and got nothing but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘ you’ll still have your stars.”
“Look at the way you live. You’ve sold out. Next thing I know you’ll become a Republican.” She shook her head. “Where are the values I raised you with?”
“Whoever coined the phrase ‘a man’s got to play the hand that was dealt him’ was most certainly one piss-poor bluffer.”
“You can’t cling to the side your whole life, that one lesson every parent needs to teach a child is “If you don’t want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.”
“She had her addictions and one of them was reading.”
“Damn, honey, you busted your snot locker pretty good.”
Topics & Themes for Discussion
Fire resurfaces frequently as a theme in The Glass Castle. As Jeannette suspects, it follows her around, becoming a fixture in her life. The very first, and perhaps most pivotal fire inspires Jeannette’s first memory, of being burned while cooking hot dogs at the age of three. Though she suffers extreme injuries, fire becomes a fixation for Jeannette, who cannot keep herself from playing with it and watching it. The work contains a number of other fires that claim houses, sheds, and injure other characters. It can be said to represent a trend of chaos that is both natural and staged by man. The theme of fire relates closely to other themes concerning nature and pollution that also appear in the memoir.
Bended Joshua Tree
The tree that Rose Mary spots in the desert is indicative of the effect the struggles of lifehave on each of the characters in the memoir. Constantly blown by wind, the Joshua tree grows sideways, not upwards and, as Rose Mary declares, becomes beautiful because of its struggle. The Walls children can be seen as individual Joshua trees, their lives shaped by the constantly blowing wind of their parents’ frequent moves and questionable habits. Jeannette tries to resist this force at first when living in New York. She does not want anyone to know about her past or judge her for allowing her parents to remain homeless. However, her attempts to grow upwards despite the constantly blowing wind are averted and she eventually succumbs like the Joshua tree, and grows sideways, finally allowing her struggle to be heard.
Rex’s nickname for his favorite child. The nickname refers to Jeannette’s endurance in face of trouble. Like a mountain goat, she is able to climb mountains without losing her footing. Jeannette is the only child given a nickname by her father. The endearment implies a special relationship between her and her father that the other children could not share with Rex. Additionally, the nickname foreshadows Jeannette’s persistence and endurance when she realizes that her and her siblings must live apart from their parents if they are to ever lead stable, fulfilling lives.
“Perversion of Nature”
Especially during the time they spend in the desert, the Walls place a huge emphasis on nature being corrupted by man. Even the most natural scenes are often interrupted by a structure that would not be there but for the needs of man. When Brian and Jeannette run into the lettuce field after scaring away the bullies, they are sprayed by pesticide. Not knowing (or perhaps not caring) the two continue to frolic and rejoice in the field. Again, during their play Brian and Jeannette encounter hazardous and toxic waste in the dump. The presence of this man-made material amidst nature creates dangerous, almost fatal circumstances for the two. While Rose Mary and Rex definitely see some of these products of technological civilization as a “perversion of nature”, like the irrigation in Battle Mountain, Jeannette does not always remember it that way. Indeed, often the “perversions” like the pesticide and toxic waste add a bit of magic and adventure to her memories. Only presently do the circumstances appear particularly dangerous.
“Boundary Between Turbulence and Order”
Rex describes this concept of physics after Brian and Jeannette almost die in a fire they set while playing with toxic waste. He warns them that no rules exist in the Boundary between turbulence and order and that if they do, nobody yet understands them. That day he says they have gotten too close to the boundary. In a way, the Walls children live in perpetual proximity to this boundary. After Rex begins drinking heavily and there is no food in the house, they begin scavenging for food and clothing through various means and enter into a place where rules and order no longer exist. The Boundary reappears at the end of the novel when Jeannette remarks that the flame of the candle is bordering the boundary between turbulence and order. This suggests a relation between this boundary and the ever-present fires of the novel; both represent chaos and control throughout the work.
Even during their hardest times, Rex and Rose Mary Walls refuse to become charity cases. They do not even accept help from their children in their late adulthood. The value of being self sufficient descends mainly from Rose Mary Walls, whose upbringing in an incredibly disciplined home leads her to forgo the rules when she becomes a mother. Her children, she insists, must learn how to be self sufficient and strong. They should not rely on society or doctors or anything else to help them through life. Even when they fall ill or injure themselves, Rose Mary prefers to treat the wound at home rather than cater to what she considers a false need to visit the hospital. Though the Walls value self sufficiency they are not always able to maintain it, and sometimes their methods are not sufficient for survival at all.
Rex and Rose Mary Walls also insist that their children are special and that they need not conform to the societal norm. Rex is even a little saddened when his son Brian joins the Air Force, what Rex considers “the gestapo.” Nonconformity also impacts the elder Walls’ relation to authority. Neither of them is capable of taking orders from authority very well. Rex gets into arguments and fights with bosses and law enforcement, and Rose Mary struggles to conform to the idea of a teaching job. She prefers the carefree and self-defined life as an artist, which does not force her to conform to another person’s style or schedule beside her own.
The Glass Castle
The title of the book and a major theme within it, the Glass Castle represents Rex’s hope for a magical, fantastic life in which he can provide for his family and please his children. Rex lays out plans for the Glass Castle, including detailed dimensions for each of the children’s rooms, but he never actually builds the castle. For a long time Jeannette believes that he will but she gives up on the hope after the hole they dig for the foundation of the Glass Castle is filled with garbage. Though the physical structure is not erected, the symbol the Glass Castle represents remains with Jeannette in her childhood and helps her to believe that her father will do what he promises. When she discovers that this is not always true and realizes that the Glass Castle will never actually be built, she has reached adulthood.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Though The Glass Castle is brimming with unforgettable stories, which scenes were the most memorable for you? Which were the most shocking, the most inspiring, the funniest?
2. Discuss the metaphor of a glass castle and what it signifies to Jeannette and her father. Why is it important that, just before leaving for New York, Jeannette tells her father that she doesn’t believe he’ll ever build it? (p. 238).
3. The first story Walls tells of her childhood is that of her burning herself severely at age three, and her father dramatically takes her from the hospital: “You’re safe now” (p. 14). Why do you think she opens with that story, and how does it set the stage for the rest of the memoir?
4. Rex Walls often asked his children, “Have I ever let you down?” Why was this question (and the required “No, Dad” response) so important for him — and for his kids? On what occasions did he actually come through for them?
5. Jeannette’s mother insists that, no matter what, “life with your father was never boring” (p. 288). What kind of man was Rex Walls? What were his strengths and weaknesses, his flaws and contradictions?
6. Discuss Rose Mary Walls. What did you think about her description of herself as an “excitement addict”? (p. 93).
7. Though it portrays an incredibly hardscrabble life, The Glass Castle is never sad or depressing. Discuss the tone of the book, and how do you think that Walls achieved that effect?
8 Describe Jeannette’s relationship to her siblings and discuss the role they played in one another’s lives.
9. In college, Jeannette is singled out by a professor for not understanding the plight of homeless people; instead of defending herself, she keeps quiet. Why do you think she does this?
10. The two major pieces of the memoir — one half set in the desert and one half in West Virginia — feel distinct. What effect did such a big move have on the family — and on your reading of the story? How would you describe the shift in the book’s tone?
11. Were you surprised to learn that, as adults, Jeannette and her siblings remained close to their parents? Why do you think this is?
12. What character traits — both good and bad — do you think that Jeannette inherited from her parents? And how do you think those traits shaped Jeannette’s life?
13. For many reviewers and readers, the most extraordinary thing about The Glass Castle is that, despite everything, Jeannette Walls refuses to condemn her parents. Were you able to be equally nonjudgmental?
14. Like Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club and Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle tells the story of a wildly original (and wildly dysfunctional) family with humor and compassion. Were their other comparable memoirs that came to mind? What distinguishes this book?