This memoir by Jeannette Walls is published by Scribner, a trademark of Simon & Schuster publishers, and is written for adults. Many high schools include this book on their student reading lists.
Jeannette Walls, an award-winning author and regular MSNBC contributor, recounts her shockingly dysfunctional home life as a youth. Walls' memoir chronicles her childhood with brilliant and creative, but nomadic and neglectful, parents. She and her three siblings — older sister, Lori; younger brother, Brian; and baby sister, Maureen — live in numerous desert towns where their father, Rex, does odd jobs. Rex's alcoholism and debts always catch up with him, no matter where he moves. The family often does the "skedaddle," leaving town under the cover of night to escape collectors.
Her mother, Rose Mary Walls, an artist and self-proclaimed excitement addict, considers her painting and writing paramount to the responsibilities of motherhood. She lets the kids fend for themselves and always frames their poverty and midnight getaways as adventures. Rex disappears on drinking binges, occasionally returning with food or money he's won through his gambling. The neglected Walls siblings experience sexual abuse at the hands of strangers and relatives, beatings by bullies, severe accident-related injuries and hunger that drives them to go through trash cans. Neither parent exhibits remorse. They praise their children's fortitude, maintaining that what doesn't kill them makes them stronger.
When Jeannette is 8 years old, Rose Mary inherits a nice Arizona home from her mother. Rose Mary's extravagant art supply purchases and Rex's carousing soon put the family back in dire straits. The family moves to a dismal West Virginia mining town where Rex grew up. The family stays with his dysfunctional, alcoholic family. The Walls later buy their own house — a crumbling shack without indoor plumbing.
As teens, Lori and Jeannette pool their meager earnings to move to New York together. Rex steals their savings, but Lori makes it to New York City. She rents an apartment and becomes an artist. A year before graduating high school, Jeannette joins her sister and works tirelessly for small publications to hone her journalism skills. Jeannette eventually is awarded scholarships to an Ivy League school and marries a man who lives on Park Avenue. Brian and Maureen later join them in New York. Their parents eventually show up, too, proclaiming they've come to keep the family together.
Jeannette and her siblings try to aid their homeless parents, who are still unwilling to make responsible choices and prefer living on the street to gainful employment. Jeannette talks about the guilt she feels sitting in a taxi en route to her Park Avenue home after seeing her mother rifling through a trash bin. (Late in life, Rose Mary admits to having land in Texas that's worth a million dollars. She never sold it and still won't, despite all their years of poverty, because she wants to keep it in the family.) Jeannette never condemns her parents' erratic, irresponsible behavior but does her best to support and love them.
Rose Mary, speaking frankly of the 9-month-old child she lost, says God had given her a child that wasn't perfect so He said, "Oops," and thought He'd better take it back. Rose Mary considers herself a Catholic and often makes the family attend Mass. She shuns Catholic schools, saying nuns take the fun out of religion. Jeannette says Rose Mary treats the Ten Commandments as suggestions. Rex, who was raised Baptist, doesn't believe in God. He says he espouses science, not superstition and voodoo. Several times, he yells out crass, sacrilegious comments to the priests during Mass. After blasting the Virgin Mary loudly, he tells Jeannette that if her boyfriend ever gets into her panties and she's pregnant, she should claim it was the Immaculate Conception. Then she should pass the plate around for money. Rose Mary says God understands that Rex is their cross to bear. She says God wants people to take charge of their own fates, because He helps those who help themselves. Uncle Stanley listens to a radio program where people are speaking in tongues, and Dad says that's the kind of soul-curdling voodoo that made him an atheist. Pentecostal families in Welch feel sorry for Maureen. Jeannette says they take it upon themselves to save her soul and treat her like a surrogate daughter. Maureen goes with them to revivals and snake-handling services and frequently comes home saying she's been baptized or born again. As he nears death, Rex says he's been reading about chaos theory and quantum physics. Some of the calculations he's seen are starting to convince him maybe God does exist.
Rose Mary Walls is a self-absorbed artist. An educated teacher, she refuses to get a job, except for a few occasions when the family is literally starving. She works as a teacher with the same lack of attention she demonstrates in parenting. Her kids often have to drag her out of bed to get her ready for work. She tries, unsuccessfully, to hide paychecks from Rex so he won't spend them all on booze. She says suffering immunizes body and soul, which is why she ignores the kids when they cry. She refuses to go on welfare or accept charity because she says it will cause the kids irreparable psychological damage. In contrast to Rex's alcoholic problems and crude dialogue, Rose Mary never drinks or uses foul language.
Rex is an inventor, always coming up with money-making ideas he can't get off the ground. He makes grand, empty promises to the family, such as saying he'll build them a glass castle. When the family is at its poorest, Rex only drinks beer; when there's a little money, he drinks harder liquor and cusses, hollers and smashes things at home, when he comes home at all. His charm and charisma keep his family from abandoning him. Rose Mary and Rex encourage reading and educate the kids in ways that put them ahead of their classmates wherever they go to school. Jeannette briefly mentions her Grandma Smith (Rose Mary's mom) and how she loved the order and rules Grandma provided. Rex's mother, Erma, is a heavy smoker and drinker who hates the kids and sometimes hits them with serving spoons. She touches Brian inappropriately, and the kids quietly wonder if she'd done the same to Rex when he was young.
Other Belief Systems
Dad takes Lori to a Navajo witch doctor when she's bitten by a scorpion because he doesn't trust physicians. When the gypsies in one of their neighborhoods curse Mom, she makes up a curse of her own to scare them. Mom says it's justifiable to shoplift some clothes for Maureen and makes the kids help by causing a distraction. Dad takes Jeannette on demon hunts. When things go bad in one town, Jeannette says she believes in luck and wishes their streak had held.
The words (or variations of) d--n, h---, s---, screw, c--k, crap, c--t, a--, b--ch, b--tard, whore, p-ss, faggot, w-nker and the f-word appear numerous times, as does the Lord's name taken in vain. Erma often complains about the "n-ggers" in the area. When Rex drinks hard liquor, he smashes things in his home.
Jeannette and Brian are curious about an establishment called the Green Lantern. Women in short dresses lounge and smoke on the porch. Brian later tells Jeannette that he and Rex had dinner with one of the Green Lantern women. Then they went to a hotel where he read his comic book in one room while Rex and the woman went in the other for a while. Billy Deel, a boy who likes Jeannette, takes her to his house to show her his passed-out father. The father's penis is sticking out, and he has urinated on himself in his drunkenness. Billy corners Jeannette and kisses her with his tongue in her mouth, then makes her touch his penis. He later tells her that action means he has raped her. When Jeannette is 10, she wakes one night to find a neighborhood pervert running his hands over her private parts. She tells her parents, but they refuse to keep the house's doors and windows closed at night. In West Virginia, Jeannette meets a woman known as the town whore. Jeannette likes the woman and is impressed that "whoring" can put so much food on the table. Jeannette's Uncle Stanley touches her inappropriately.
Rose Mary shows no sympathy for her daughter but feels sorry for Stanley because he's lonely. Rose Mary says sexual assaults are a crime of perception: If you don't think you're hurt, you aren't. When Jeannette goes swimming with a black girl named Dinitia, the black women in the locker room laugh about her red bikini hair. Dinitia later becomes pregnant by her mother's boyfriend and is arrested for stabbing him to death. The girls at Jeannette's high school talk about who still has their cherry and how far they would go with their boyfriends. Jeannette believes boys are dangerous and that they're after something. Dad makes Jeannette get dressed up to go to a bar with him. He hustles a man at pool while allowing the man to get drunk and put his hands all over Jeannette. With Dad's blessing, she goes upstairs with the man, who throws her on the bed and starts to kiss her before she gets away. Dad tries to get her to "team up" with him again to hustle, but she refuses. Jeannette's employer at the jewelry store sometimes rubs up against her backside. At camp, Lori finds a boyfriend who kisses her.
YALSA Alex Award, 2006; Christopher Award for Adult Books, 2006; The New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 2005 and others
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.