Going in, I knew this was a memoir--that journalist Jeannette Walls had kept her childhood secret for many years. I also knew that this is the only book that comes up if you search “Joshua tree symbolism” (which I did while researching my upcoming tattoo design). That's all I knew.
It's rather far from the “unmasking terrible parents” type of story that I assumed it would be. Walls pulls no punches describing the choices her parents made as they raised herself and her siblings, but she also tells the story from her own perspective. Adult Walls still remembers, vividly, her father's birthday present of allowing her to name her own star, the family dreams of the “Glass Castle” which would be funded someday by his get-rich schemes, the art her mother painted and the games she played with her sisters and brother.
This makes the book complex and, at times, difficult to read. There are no simple judgments here, but neither are there excuses. I was vividly reminded of some families I met growing up, whose parents were likewise eccentric (though not by nearly so much!) and yet loved their children profoundly.
If I had to boil it down to one theme, it might be that family can be the most powerful influence in one's life. Family is something that shapes you and cannot ever be entirely escaped... and that's not necessarily a bad thing.