Hoo boy, this was not an easy book. Jeannette Walls tells the story of her childhood, growing up in abject poverty with two parents who are not entirely stable and are really just irresponsible. FYI, there will be spoilers throughout this review. I was aghast at their treatment of their children at many points, and the fact that Walls and her siblings do so well for themselves was really rewarding but also heart-breaking. At one point, a child welfare agent shows up, and Walls successfully talks him away, but I couldn't help but wonder if their lives might have been better if they had let the authorities intervene. I understand that the system is not fair or without its own problems, but the constant neglect and frequent abuse was horrifying.
Mostly this book made me want to shout at her parents for being so irresponsible. Walls seems well adjusted enough, and clearly feels deep affection for both parents, but both of them are exceedingly bad at parenting - her father is an alcoholic who steals Walls' savings, and her mother is selfish to a ludicrous extent: in spite of being a qualified teacher, she feels like she has spent too much of her life working and caring for others, and decides that she wants to spend her time working on her art instead of working to put food on the table for her four children. I'm not sure why I came out of this book so much more frustrated with her mother than her father - he's an alcoholic, which is a serious disease that's difficult to overcome, but there's nothing identifiably wrong with her mother except selfishness, which I eventually came to realize was probably a result of some serious mental issues as well, so why am I so exasperated with her? I suppose it's because it's clear early on her father is good for nothing, so I never have any expectations he'll do better, but her mother will occasionally try, and it would give me hope that she'd do better, and then she would give up, or keep the two-carat diamond ring the children find instead of selling it to put food on the table, because she deserves nice things, and I'd get frustrated again. The reveal at the end of the book that she has been sitting on land with a value of up to a million dollars, while she is homeless and her children spent their formative years eating out of the garbage cans, is particularly upsetting.
Walls writes well, though, and as in Half-Broke Horses, the stories are short little vignettes that I often found very compelling and hard to put down. Some of the anecdotes are funny and cute, but far more are difficult and upsetting, and made me feel terrible for her and her siblings. It was a good read, though, and I'd say it's four stars. Now I need to read about something pleasant and happy for a while...
This review has been crossposted to CannonballRead, a race to read and review 52 books in a year!