Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" was published in 2005. It tells the harrowing story of Walls' upbringing in which she and her siblings were often left to take care of each other and fend for themselves while their eccentric parents lived out their own ideas of freedom, which usually included abject poverty.
The book starts out with the adult Walls riding in a taxi on her way to a fancy evening out in New York when she spies her mother digging through a dumpster. She is appalled, but not surprised. Her parents have chosen to live as part of the homeless for many years and are deaf to the offers of assistance from their children. How did things get to this desperate state of affairs? This is the story of "The Glass Castle," starting with Walls' childhood.
I had decided not to read "The Glass Castle," even though it was getting rave reviews and a lot of press. It just sounded too depressing.
Then in 2009 Walls published "Half Broke Horses." It is a "true-life novel" that tells the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. She originally sat down to write her mother's story, but her mother kept insisting that it was really Jeannette's grandmother who had lead the interesting life. Walls' interest was piqued, especially since her mother had often told her that she was a lot like her grandmother. Through countless sessions interviewing her mother she got most of the story, but not enough to write her biography. And so the "true-life novel" label.
Wall's grandmother was born in 1901 in the Southwest, and like the women who would come after her, she defied conventional living. From the front cover of the book, "By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town - riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. She survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and heartbreaking personal tragedy. She also ran a vast ranch in Arizona with her husband Jim."
I loved this book. I loved this book so much I wanted to sleep with it. In the same way that my then five-year-old son slept with his new Batmobile when he got it. In the same way that I loved the Little House on the Prairie books when I was in grade school. Finding that glimpse of another time and another way of living so fascinating, because it was a time that was almost within reach yet still foreign enough to be exotic.
"Half Broke Horses" ends with the marriage of Lily's rebellious (surprised?) daughter, Rosemary. Rosemary is Jeanette Walls' mother, the homeless woman she spies at the beginning of "The Glass Castle."
Well, now I had to find out how point A got to point B, so I dug into "The Glass Castle" feeling like I already knew the characters. And I was not disappointed. It's a story that is at times hard to believe, and you will ask yourself, where was Child Protective Services during these kids' lives? But it is also a story of Wall's journey out of her beginnings and into a new life. Highly recommended.
So this is my pitch. If you haven't read "The Glass Castle" yet, read "Half Broke Horses" first and have an ever richer experience of both books.