A long driveway winds its way past a tranquil lake, weeping willows and a training course for horses. Roomy wooden stables are home to Blue and Chuck Yeager, while curious and playful greyhounds, Emma and Leopold, run wild, certain they've found heaven. Not a blade of grass seems uncared for or out of place.
The beauty and abundance of this idyllic haven are in striking contrast to the chaotic and outrageous childhood described in Walls' best-selling memoir, "The Glass Castle."
"This is the place I always dreamed of," says Walls, who is tall and slender with long, auburn hair and simple black clothing that directs attention toward her handsome features. Her gaze is unfaltering and she speaks at a fast clip, but when she listens, it is with a journalist's hawklike intensity.
"I've come full circle without the bad stuff," she says. "It's so good, it scares me a little. I love all of this desperately, but there's a difference between wanting things and needing them. I know I could live without it."
Until she left her parents' ramshackle home in Welch, W.Va., at age 17, Walls learned to live on just about nothing. Food, plumbing, shelter, clothing and stability were all rare commodities in her nomadic childhood. Constellations were Christmas gifts, and the children ate more poetry than bread. Although she was not shielded from her father's alcoholism or her mother's narcissistic whims, Walls did learn how to make something from nothing, how to use her smarts and how to dream big.
The inside of the Walls-Taylor farmhouse is furnished with an eclectic array of dark wood furniture and antique Oriental rugs from auctions, flea markets and yard sales. "We have a thermostat and indoor plumbing!" Walls says with real joy, but neglects to mention that her memoir has been translated into French, German, Portuguese, Turkish, Korean and two Chinese dialects, to name but a few, while floating near the top of The New York Times best-seller lists since its release last year. (Last week, "The Glass Castle" was No. 2 in the paperback nonfiction category.)
Walls' extreme modesty may have helped her disguise her past throughout her 30-year career as a journalist in New York City. Her colleagues at New York magazine, USA Today and MSNBC.com assumed she was born a Barnard rich kid, bred for Park Avenue. Walls kept the truth of her childhood entombed until one afternoon in Central Park. Nonfiction author John Taylor, Walls' longtime friend, co-worker and future husband, threatened to end their friendship if she refused to be honest with him about her life. When she finally told him everything, Taylor knew that within her story, Walls had a very good book.
She wrote the first draft in six weeks and showed it to her agent, who said it read as if wrapped in cellophane, as if her life had no effect on her at all. "Well, it didn't," she said, but then, thinking about the 8-year-old who had been thrown from the family car and left on the side of the road, she began to cry. Between 1999 and 2004, she revised and rewrote until everything she wrote was painfully honest. Although she blushed in her own home when she recalled eating sandwiches from the high-school trash, she knew she had to write about it. At times, in order to keep writing her book, she pretended that no one was going to read it.
"I'm 46 years old, and it took me this long to understand that when people knew the truth, they wouldn't view me badly," she says. "I warned John in advance, 'I was in a fire when I was young.' He said: 'Don't ever apologize that you've got scars. Smooth is boring. You've got texture.'"
Walls survived not only a fire when she was 3, but also long stretches eating only margarine, sleeping in a cardboard box and trying to devise a set of braces to correct her teeth. That she's written about her life in such a humorous, tender and nonjudgmental way — without therapy or self-help groups — is more than many people can fathom. Although she is crazy about Taylor's grown daughter and has considered adopting older children, it has not escaped her attention that neither she nor her sisters have become mothers.
"I'm not going to pretend that there is no baggage from my past," she says. "I didn't want to resent children the way my mother resented us."
Walls' mother, Rose Mary, 72, is an artist and teacher who rarely bothered to feed or clothe her children. Because her New York squat burned down in April, she's living in a trailer behind her daughter's house, Walls says, "painting like a madwoman." At times Walls is scared of becoming just like her, but also sees some wisdom in her ways.
"Is she mentally ill?" Walls asks rhetorically. "Well, it depends on what your definition of insanity is. She's a little loopy, but I think it's mostly that she has different values."
Whether her parents were abusive monsters or adventuresome pioneers with a few flaws has sparked both philosophical discussions and screaming matches at Walls' public readings. "The Glass Castle" compels people to dig into their own pasts and illuminate the forces, good and bad, that have made them who they are.
"You put on a suit of armor at some point in life to protect you from bad things," she says. "And the trick is knowing when to take it off. When you find the courage and strength, it's incredibly emancipating. I have done my job and then some if I have gotten through to a kid somewhere, that no matter what their circumstance, they're going to be all right."
Since 1999, Walls has written the gossip column for MSNBC.com, but in the wake of "The Glass Castle" has begun to rethink her position. "To what degree was I the unpopular kid shouting, 'Look! Nicole Kidman's got problems too!' Of course she does. I believe the truth will set you free, but sometimes the truth is so incendiary that people should be able to reveal it themselves." In the meantime, she's kicking around ideas for a new nonfiction book. Perhaps "The Glass Castle" is such a book-club darling because it embodies the American dream: An underdog not only succeeds, but also excels, against all possible odds. Or maybe it's the fairy-tale factor, where the skinny girl with the buck teeth who wears rags ends up glamorous and successful — except in this case Prince Charming doesn't come along until many years later, and by then, Cinderella has saved herself. And gotten braces.
"The hair is standing up on the back of my neck to hear the response that my stories have had," Walls says. "I just survived these things, and so many other people have too. Everybody's life has its own weirdness. Even the upper class. We're all in the same boat. We're just wearing different clothes." S
Jeannette Walls will be a featured speaker and panelist at the fourth annual James River Writers Conference held Oct. 6 and 7 at the Library of Virginia. Visit www.jamesriver writers.org for details.