Want to Write a Memoir? First Read THE GLASS CASTLE: A MEMOIR

Dear Reader,

Because there are thousands of The Glass Castle reviews, I ask you to go elsewhere to read about its plot; what I want to talk about is voice. Who is telling the story and how. A blend of point of view and characterization, let’s say.

Author Jeannette Walls employs the voice of a child, young Jeannette, to relate her childhood’s matter of factness about her parents’ actions, which were ghastly, for the most part, and loving, for the least part. As the child matures, her voice matures, and it takes more complex expression of her thoughts. Some reviewers found this childlike approach annoying. Why? Possibly because the child doesn’t speak in languid prose, which some reviewers interpret as poor writing, or because they couldn’t let themselves think like a child. She thinks her parents are interesting, are “special” parents, not that they are unfit to parent. After all, what adult wants to admit death-grip loyalty to  messed up parents?

Why does Walls’ approach to her memoir work? Because it dispels adult judgment, “shoulds” and “should nots,” and lets the characters, Jeannette, Rose Mary, and Rex Walls, and others, show themselves through what they think, say, do, and she lets them go through experiences that could help explain some of why they are who they are. This creates in readers an uncomfortable empathy for the characters, which is funny, because the characters would just as soon bust readers’ noses than be “pitied” by them.

Of course, Walls can only translate her adult perceptions into what she believes were her childish thoughts, and this is tough to pull off without resorting to clichéd ungrammatical baby talk. She successfully combines adult understanding with a child’s perceptions and tells her story. Again, this annoyed some reviewers. They say she isn’t introspective enough. Does she have to say, “I think my parents were selfish and this is why: they thought more of drinking and painting pictures than of feeding us kids,” for the reader to “get” this? I think not. Her parents are selfish and unselfish, multi-dimensional, like well-crafted fictional characters.

Walls’ message—to me, anyway—is not that her parents are awful people, but that they aren’t entirely awful, that they exhibited many moments of loveliness and intelligence. That they are humans, flawed humans. And that’s all.


3 Responses to “Want to Write a Memoir? First Read THE GLASS CASTLE: A MEMOIR”

  1. 1 Debra Shirley 02/13/2009 at 4:32 pm

    Sounds intriguing. Can’t wait to read it. I loved your phrase about her parents not being “enitirely awful”.

  2. 2 Randy & Christy Cosner 08/03/2009 at 3:47 am

    I read this book after picking it up off a bookmobile shelf. What a find! I’m from WV and could relate to some of the cultural attributes, but not the abuse she endured from her family. I thought the book was unique and touching. Jannette made alot of courageous decisions of varying magnatude. Probably the decision to follow her sister to NYC was the most daring. It is abmerable to me, because I would have liked to had the courage to do it when I was her age.

  3. 3 Faye Quam Heimerl 08/06/2009 at 4:47 pm


    Yes, Jannette had lots of courage. I wonder if it came naturally to her. Her life was in constant upheaval, so moving to NYC was probably another upheaval, albeit one she chose for herself.

    Thanks for writing to me.

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February 2009
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Photo Credits: Header - Barbara McNichol, Author - Bernadette Garcia

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