Sep 162009
Authors: Savannah King

5 of 5 stars.

The lifestyle of a vagabond isn’t for everyone, but for some it is the preferred way to live.

Strangely enough, when it comes to the young life of Jeannette Walls, this is how her parents consciously chose to raise her and her three siblings.

In “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette recounts this shocking story of her childhood, portraying a family, which the novel refers to as both “deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant.”

Her parents’ ideals, unfathomable to most people in today’s materialistic society, did not include staying in one place or even living indoors — and not because of lack of resources, either.

Both Rose Mary and Rex Walls were highly educated, intelligent people. Mr. Walls taught his children geology, as they camped out in the open in the desert, and physics as they struggled in small mining towns up in the mountains. Mrs. Walls was an exceptional artist, home-schooled her children using her own excellent schooling and for a brief period of time taught in schools when she experimented with having a real job.

Though Mrs. Walls received a huge inheritance from her deceased mother, while the family experimented with living in a house in Phoenix for a few years, they eventually sank back into homelessness; this due to money squandering and restlessness.

As a young child, Jeannette didn’t seem to mind her wandering, houseless lifestyle. She remembers it almost fondly, yet cites moments which make most readers squirm: such as a time when she informed her mother there was no food and she was terribly hungry, only to be yelled at.

To the young girl, it made sense.

“I had broken one of our unspoken rules,” she writes apologetically. “We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.”

While their life certainly was adventurous, all of the Walls’ children slowly escaped it, one by one, leaving their parents. And like Jeannette, they each became successful in their own right.

Mr. and Mrs. Walls, however, chose to maintain their former lifestyle. Jeannette still sees them sometimes, usually rooting through large dumpsters in New York.

Jeannette’s parents’ strange values seem to make most readers do a bit of a double-take. What kind of people voluntarily live like this; raise children like this and yet still consider themselves happy and successful? It is practically inconceivable today.

But, however different, those values hold a magic all their own.

Even later in life though, it would seem Jeannette still can’t quite come to terms with the fact that it was her parents who “danced along the border of turbulence and order,” who made her so unique and it’s these principles that distinguish them from the rest of a homogenous society.

As Mrs. Walls would put it: “You want to change my life? I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are just all confused.”

Book reviewer Savannah King can be reached at

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