Jeannette Walls


Jeannette Walls, presented by Mary Carwardine, March 7, 2017


Jeannette Walls was born on April 21, 1960, in Phoenix, Arizona, to unconventional parents who wouldn’t conform to society and were more intent on their next adventure than on providing basic necessities for their children.  Despite her challenging childhood, Jeannette was thankfully surrounded by books, and her parents encouraged a love of education.


Her most well-known book, The Glass Castle, about her bizarre upbringing, was published in 2005, followed by Half Broke Horses in 2009.  Her first full-fledged novel, The Silver Star, was published in 2013.  Formerly a gossip columnist for 20 years at New York magazine and later among others, her first book, published in 2000, is Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show.  The book is a well-researched, candid history of the role gossip has played in U.S. media, politics and life.


Jeannette first wrote her memoir when she was 19 but threw it in the garbage.  She made several other attempts over the next 20 years and trashed them all.  She felt for many years that she would lose everything if she told her story.  It was her mother, Rose Mary, who ultimately gave her what she needed to write the book, telling her to just tell the truth.  Jeannette initially thought the book would be a lot more about her New York City years as a journalist with a funny sitcom quality about living on Park Avenue while her whacky homeless parents were from time-to-time invading her life.  Instead, the book chronicles Jeannette’s nomadic and unsettled youth.


Jeannette’s father, Rex, somewhat of a charismatic scoundrel, was a gambling alcoholic and probably bipolar.  He kept promising that all the moving was temporary and that he would build a glass castle in the desert.  Her mother, who is still living, is creative and optimistic and believed that her passion for art would get her somewhere someday.  Unfortunately, she preferred painting and writing over supervising or even providing meals for her children.


After various towns in Arizona, Nevada, and California (including a hotel in San Francisco that was also a brothel), they landed in Rex’s Appalachian hometown of Welch, West Virginia, a hardscrabble hamlet where nearly every household lived below the poverty line.  Despite the hardships of her home life, Jeannette excelled in school.  At 13, Jeannette and her older sister began planning their escape to New York City, where Jeannette worked, finished high school and attended an Ivy League college, graduating with honors.


Although some may not relate to her situation, her writing is very accessible and relatable.  Gracefully written, the book speaks candidly, yet with surprising affection.   Many people have asked how she could forgive her mother for the way she was raised, but Jeannette believes that it’s more about acceptance than forgiveness, and she does not feel like a victim.   They were damaged, and they might not have given her everything she wanted, but they gave her the tools to get them herself.  They also gave her a lot of good material.


Half Broke Horses is about Jeannette’s maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.  Jeannette calls this book a “true-life novel” because she was unable to fact-check and says it’s mostly a family story that was handed down.  Lily was born in 1901 in a dugout on a riverbank in west Texas.  Given her mother’s frail constitution and preference for the indoors, Lily learned at an early age how to get things done – a source of both amazement and concern for her mother.  “Most important thing in life,” her father would say, “is learning to fall.”    Before long, Lily was a foul-mouthed, horse-breaking, gun-toting, poker-playing, moonshine-selling schoolteacher.  Lily tamed the land, the critters, and the school kids, but she couldn’t tame Rose Mary, Jeannette’s mother.


The Silver Star is a somewhat familiar tale of children surviving the adults around them.  The idea for the book started when readers of The Glass Castle asked if her parents were mentally ill, and she became fascinated with the juxtaposition of mental illness and creativity.  She also looked into why some children go through the same circumstances, and one comes out okay, but the other doesn’t.


As far as Jeannette is concerned, her father did build the glass castle.  It wasn’t a physical structure, but rather a dream – the hope of a better life.