Picks and Pans Review: The Glass Castle

UPDATED 04/04/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/04/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

By Jeannette Walls
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Many writers mine their past for material, but until this vivid, intense memoir, New York City journalist Jeannette Walls had kept the truth about her family a secret. The second of four children, Walls was raised in a laissez-faire fashion in trailer parks and tumbledown houses from Arizona to West Virginia, waiting for her brilliant, alcoholic father to raise enough money to build a Glass Castle of a home. Her mother, an artist and self-described "excitement addict," was selfish and neglectful; Jeannette and her siblings were left to fend for themselves, stealing food from neighbors or other kids' lunch boxes. As Jeannette grew older, the situation got worse: When she was 13, her father used her as sexual bait to distract a man he was hustling at pool. Still, this is no mere woe-is-me tale. Walls never turns her parents into monsters and instead emphasizes their humanity, recalling, for instance, a time when, lacking money for Christmas presents, her father takes the children outside and tells them to choose a favorite among the stars. Or when the kids happen upon a 2-carat diamond ring and plead with their mother to sell it. Instead she keeps it, saying it'll "improve [her] self-esteem." Though there are many memoirs that describe hardscrabble childhoods, Walls has joined the company of writers such as Mary Karr and Frank McCourt who have been able to transform their sad memories into fine art.

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