In her seminal 2005 memoir The Glass Castle, writer and former MSNBC columnist Jeannette Walls delved into the past, courageously sharing the story of her difficult childhood. In honor of Walls’s birthday on April 21, we’ve compiled a list of poignant fiction and nonfiction books similar to The Glass Castle. These reads reveal the struggles of growing up amid poverty and familial dysfunction, but also shed light on the strength of the human spirit. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy — exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling– does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies. Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank’s survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors — yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness. Angela’s Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt’s astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
The dazzling, prizewinning, wickedly funny tale of Mary Karr’s hardscrabble Texas childhood — the book that sparked a renaissance in memoir.
When it was published in 1995, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, as well as bringing about a dramatic revival of the form. Karr’s comic childhood in an east Texas oil town brings us characters as darkly hilarious as any of J. D. Salinger’s — a hard-drinking daddy, a sister who can talk down the sheriff at twelve, and an oft-married mother whose accumulated secrets threaten to destroy them all. Now with a new introduction that discusses her memoir’s impact on her family, this unsentimental and profoundly moving account of an apocalyptic childhood is as “funny, lively, and un-put-downable” (USA Today) today as it ever was.
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Running with Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead-ringer for Santa and a lunatic in the bargain. Suddenly, at age 12, Augusten Burroughs found himself living in a dilapidated Victorian in perfect squalor. The doctor’s bizarre family, a few patients, and a pedophile living in the backyard shed completed the tableau. Here, there were no rules, there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer, and Valium was eaten like Pez. And when things got dull, there was always the vintage electroshock therapy machine under the stairs….
Running with Scissors is at turns foul and harrowing, compelling and maniacally funny. But above all, it chronicles an ordinary boy’s survival under the most extraordinary circumstances.
North of Normal by Cea Sunrise Person
In the late 1960s, riding the crest of the counterculture movement, Cea’s family left a comfortable existence in California to live off the land in northern Alberta. But unlike most commune dwellers of the time, the Persons weren’t trying to build a new society — they wanted to escape civilization altogether. Led by Cea’s grandfather Dick, they lived in a canvas Teepee, grew pot, and hunted and gathered to survive.
Living out her grandparents’ dream with her teenage mother, Michelle, young Cea knew little of the world beyond her forest. She spent her summers playing nude in the meadow and her winters snowshoeing behind the grandfather she idolized. Despite fierce storms, food shortages, and the occasional drug-and-sex-infused party for visitors, it was a happy existence. For Michelle, however, there was one crucial element missing: a man. When Cea was five, Michelle took her on the road with a new boyfriend. As the trio set upon a series of ill-fated adventures, Cea began to question both her highly unusual world and the hedonistic woman at the centre of it — questions that eventually evolved into an all-consuming search for a more normal life. Finally, in her early teens, Cea realized she would have to make a choice as drastic as the one her grandparents once had made in order to get the life she craved.
From nature child to international model by the age of 13, Cea’s astonishing saga is one of long-held family secrets and extreme family dysfunction, all in an incredibly unusual setting. It is also the story of one girl’s deep-seated desire for normality — a desire that enabled her to risk everything, overcome adversity, and achieve her dreams.
Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse
“A West Coast version of Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors… A funny, shocking, generous-hearted book” (Entertainment Weekly) about a boy, his five stepfathers, and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth.
When he was three years old, Brando Kelly Ulloa was abandoned by his immigrant father. His mother, Maria, dreaming of a more exciting life, saw no reason for her son to live as a Mexican American just because he was born one. With the help of Maria’s ruthless imagination and a hastily penned jailhouse correspondence, the life of “Brando Skyhorse,” the Native American son of an incarcerated political activist, was about to begin.
Through a series of letters to Paul Skyhorse Johnson, a stranger in prison for armed robbery, Maria reinvents herself and her young son as American Indians in the colorful Mexican-American neighborhood of Echo Park, California, where Brando and his mother live with his acerbic grandmother and a rotating cast of surrogate fathers. It will be 30 years before Brando begins to untangle the truth, when a surprise discovery leads him to his biological father at last.
From this PEN/Hemingway Award–winning novelist comes an extraordinary literary memoir capturing a mother-son story unlike any other and a boy’s single-minded search for a father, wherever he can find one.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
In this groundbreaking, bestselling graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father. In her hands, personal history becomes a work of amazing subtlety and power, written with controlled force and enlivened with humor, rich literary allusion, and heartbreaking detail.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.
The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy’s great success as a writer has always been intimately linked with the exploration of his family history. As the oldest of seven children who were dragged from military base to military base across the South, Pat bore witness to the often cruel and violent behavior of his father, Marine Corps fighter pilot Donald Patrick Conroy. While the publication of The Great Santini brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused brought even more attention, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. In the final years of Don Conroy’s life, the Santini unexpectedly refocused his ire to defend his son’s honor.
The Death of Santini is a heart-wrenching act of reckoning whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to the oft-quoted line from Pat’s novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
This unforgettable memoir, by one of our most gifted writers, introduces us to the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move, yet they develop an extraordinarily close, almost telepathic relationship. As Toby fights for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, his experiences are at once poignant and comical, and Wolff does a masterful job of re-creating the frustrations and cruelties of adolescence. His various schemes — running away to Alaska, forging checks, and stealing cars — lead eventually to an act of outrageous self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility.
Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless
In her stunning memoir, Wendy Lawless tells the often heartbreaking tale of her unconventional upbringing with an unstable alcoholic and suicidal mother — a real-life Holly Golightly turned Mommie Dearest — and the uncommon sense of resilience that allowed her to rise above it all.
With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Domenica Ruta grew up in a working-class, unforgiving town north of Boston, in a trash-filled house on a dead-end road surrounded by a river and a salt marsh. Her mother, Kathi, a notorious local figure, was a drug addict and sometimes dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches, and whose highbrow taste was at odds with her hardscrabble life. And yet she managed, despite the chaos she created, to instill in her daughter a love of stories. Kathi frequently kept Domenica home from school to watch such classics as the Godfather movies and everything by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, telling her, “This is more important. I promise. You’ll thank me later.” And despite the fact that there was not a book to be found in her household, Domenica developed a love of reading, which helped her believe that she could transcend this life of undying grudges, self-inflicted misfortune, and the crooked moral code that Kathi and her cohorts lived by.
With or Without You is the story of Domenica Ruta’s unconventional coming of age — a darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth and the necessary and painful act of breaking away, and of overcoming her own addictions and demons in the process. In a brilliant stylistic feat, Ruta has written a powerful, inspiring, compulsively readable, and finally redemptive story about loving and leaving.
Etched in Sand by Regina Calcaterra
Regina’s Calcaterra memoir, Etched in Sand, is an inspiring and triumphant coming-of-age story of tenacity and hope.
Regina Calcaterra is a successful lawyer, New York State official, and activist. Her painful early life, however, was quite different. Regina and her four siblings survived an abusive and painful childhood only to find themselves faced with the challenges of the foster-care system and intermittent homelessness in the shadows of Manhattan and the Hamptons.
A true-life rags-to-riches story, Etched in Sand chronicles Regina’s rising above her past, while fighting to keep her brother and three sisters together through it all.
Beautifully written, with heartbreaking honesty, Etched in Sand is an unforgettable reminder that regardless of social status, the American Dream is still within reach for those who have the desire and the determination to succeed.
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
This haunting, harrowing, gloriously moving recollection of a life on the American margin is the story of Rick Bragg, who grew up dirt-poor in northeastern Alabama, seemingly destined for either the cotton mills or the penitentiary, and instead became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. It is the story of Bragg’s father, a hard-drinking man with a murderous temper and the habit of running out on the people who needed him most.
But at the center of this soaring memoir is Bragg’s mother, who went 18 years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes and picked other people’s cotton so that her children wouldn’t have to live on welfare alone. Evoking these lives — and the country that shaped and nourished them — with artistry, honesty, and compassion, Rick Bragg brings home the love and suffering that lie at the heart of every family. The result is unforgettable.
Townie by Andre Dubus III
After their parents divorced in the 1970s, Andre Dubus III and his three siblings grew up with their overworked mother in a depressed Massachusetts mill town saturated with drugs and everyday violence. Nearby, his father, an eminent author, taught on a college campus and took the kids out on Sundays. The clash between town and gown, between the hard drinking, drugging, and fighting of “townies” and the ambitions of students debating books and ideas, couldn’t have been more stark. In this unforgettable memoir, acclaimed novelist Dubus shows us how he escaped the cycle of violence and found empathy in channeling the stories of others — bridging, in the process, the rift between his father and himself.
The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
A lyrical and authentic book that recounts the story of a border-town family in Brownsville, Texas in the 1980’s, as each member of the family desperately tries to assimilate and escape life on the border to become “real” Americans, even at the expense of their shared family history. This is really un-mined territory in the memoir genre that gives in-depth insight into a previously unexplored corner of America.
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ gripping new novel that “transports us with her powerful storytelling… She contemplates the extraordinary bravery needed to confront real-life demons in a world where the hardest thing to do may be to not run away” (O, The Oprah Magazine).
It is 1970 in a small town in California. “Bean” Holladay is 12 and her sister, Liz, is 15 when their artistic mother, Charlotte, takes off to find herself, leaving her girls enough money to last a month or two. When Bean returns from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz decide to take the bus to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that’s been in Charlotte’s family for generations.
An impetuous optimist, Bean soon discovers who her father was, and hears stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Money is tight, and the sisters start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town, who bullies his workers, his tenants, his children, and his wife. Liz is whip-smart — an inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, nonconformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz in the car with Maddox.
Jeannette Walls has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than 60 years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
Since her first publication in 1992, celebrated novelist Ann Patchett has crafted a number of elegant novels, garnering accolades and awards along the way. Now comes a beautiful reissue of the best-selling debut novel that launched her remarkable career.
St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers in Habit, Kentucky, usually harbors its residents for only a little while. Not so Rose Clinton, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed, and stays. She plans to give up her child, thinking she cannot be the mother it needs. But when Cecilia is born, Rose makes a place for herself and her daughter amid St. Elizabeth’s extended family of nuns and an ever-changing collection of pregnant teenage girls. Rose’s past won’t be kept away, though, even by St. Elizabeth’s; she cannot remain untouched by what she has left behind, even as she cannot change who she has become in the leaving.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
The Bean Trees is bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, now widely regarded as a modern classic. It is the charming, engrossing tale of rural Kentucky native Taylor Greer, who only wants to get away from her roots and avoid getting pregnant. She succeeds, but inherits a three-year-old native-American little girl named Turtle along the way, and together, from Oklahoma to Tucson, Arizona, half-Cherokee Taylor and her charge search for a new life in the West.
Written with humor and pathos, this highly praised novel focuses on love and friendship, abandonment and belonging as Taylor, out of money and seemingly out of options, settles in dusty Tucson and begins working at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires while trying to make a life for herself and Turtle.
The author of such bestsellers as The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, and Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver has been hailed for her striking imagery and clear dialogue, and this is the novel that kicked off her remarkable literary career.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Ree Dolly’s father has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab, and the Dollys will lose their house if he doesn’t show up for his next court date. With two young brothers depending on her, 16-year-old Ree knows she has to bring her father back, dead or alive. Living in the harsh poverty of the Ozarks, Ree learns quickly that asking questions of the rough Dolly clan can be a fatal mistake. But, as an unsettling revelation lurks, Ree discovers unforeseen depths in herself and in a family network that protects its own at any cost.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
The publication of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina was a landmark event. The novel’s profound portrait of family dynamics in the rural South won the author a National Book Award nomination and launched her into the literary spotlight. Critics have likened Allison to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee, naming her the first writer of her generation to dramatize the lives and language of poor whites in the South. Since its appearance, the novel has inspired an award-winning film and has been banned from libraries and classrooms, championed by fans, and defended by critics.
Greenville County, South Carolina, is a wild, lush place that is home to the Boatwright family-a tight-knit clan of rough-hewn, hard- drinking men who shoot up each other’s trucks, and indomitable women who get married young and age too quickly. At the heart of this story is Ruth Anne Boatwright, known simply as Bone, a bastard child who observes the world around her with a mercilessly keen perspective. When her stepfather Daddy Glen, “cold as death, mean as a snake,” becomes increasingly more vicious toward her, Bone finds herself caught in a family triangle that tests the loyalty of her mother, Anney-and leads to a final, harrowing encounter from which there can be no turning back.
The Street by Ann Petry
The Street tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.
Bone by Fae Myenne Ng
In this profoundly moving novel, Fae Myenne Ng takes readers into the hidden heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, to the world of one family’s honor, their secrets, and the lost bones of a “paper father.” Two generations of the Leong family live in an uneasy tension as they try to fathom the source of a brave young girl’s sorrow.
Oldest daughter Leila tells the story: of her sister Ona, who has ended her young, conflicted life by jumping from the roof of a Chinatown housing project; of her mother Mah, a seamstress in a garment shop run by a “Chinese Elvis”; of Leon, her father, a merchant seaman who ships out frequently; and the family’s youngest, Nina, who has escaped to New York by working as a flight attendant. With Ona and Nina gone, it is up to Leila to lay the bones of the family’s collective guilt to rest, and find some way to hope again.
Fae Myenne Ng’s luminous debut explores what it means to be a stranger in one’s own family, a foreigner in one’s own neighborhood — and whether it’s possible to love a place that may never feel quite like home.
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s checked the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice (Uniforms, disposing of outgrown; The Right Use of Your Body; Finding Your Way When Lost) for tips to get off the Calle: that is, the Calle de las Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.
Rory’s been told that she is one of the “third-generation bastards surely on the road to whoredom.” But she’s determined to prove the county and her own family wrong. Brash, sassy, vulnerable, wise, and terrified, she struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good. From diary entries, social workers’ reports, half-recalled memories, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Rory crafts a devastating collage that shows us her world even as she searches for the way out of it.
Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild is a heart-stopping and original debut.
The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton
Winner of the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel, this exquisite book confronts real-life issues of alienation and violence from which the author creates a stunning testament to the human capacity for mercy, compassion, and love.
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
On the mountainside in rural Mexico where Ladydi lives, being a girl is dangerous. Especially a pretty one. If the Narcos hear there is a pretty girl on the mountain, they steal her. So when the black SUVs roll into town, Ladydi and her friends hide in the warren of holes scattered across the mountain, safely out of sight. Because the stolen girls don’t come back.
Ladydi is determined to get out, to find a life that offers more than just the struggle to survive. But she soon finds that the drug cartels have eyes everywhere, and the cities are no safer than the mountains.
Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
A national bestseller — adapted into a movie starring Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon — Anywhere But Here is the heart-rending tale of a mother and daughter. A moving, often comic portrait of wise child Ann August and her mother, Adele, a larger-than-life American dreamer, the novel follows the two women as they travel through the landscape of their often conflicting ambitions. A brilliant exploration of the perennial urge to keep moving, even at the risk of profound disorientation, Anywhere But Here is a story about the things we do for love, and a powerful study of familial bonds.
Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris
It’s the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. Maria Fermoyle is a strong but vulnerable divorced woman whose loneliness and ambition for her children make her easy prey for dangerous con man Omar Duvall. Marie’s children are Alice, 17 — involved with a young priest; Norm, 16 — hotheaded and idealistic; and Benny, 12 — isolated and misunderstood, and so desperate for his mother’s happiness that he hides the deadly truth he knows about Duvall. We also meet Sam Fermoyle, the children’s alcoholic father; Sam’s brother-in-law, who makes anonymous “love” calls from the bathroom of his failing appliance store; and the Klubock family, who — in contrast to the Fermoyles — live an orderly life in the house next door.
Songs in Ordinary Time is a masterful epic of the everyday, illuminating the kaleidoscope of lives that tell the compelling story of this unforgettably family.
Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes
With the same audacity with which John Steinbeck wrote about migrant worker conditions in The Grapes of Wrath and T.C. Boyle in The Tortilla Curtain, Viramontes (The Moths and Other Stories) presents a moving and powerful vision of the lives of the men, women, and children who endure a second-class existence and labor under dangerous conditions in California’s fields. This first novel tells the story a young girl, Estrella, and her Latino family as they struggle with arduous farm labor during the summer months, and still manage to latch onto the hope of a liberating future. Viramontes graces the page with poetic touch, artfully describing poverty conditions and bringing to the reader a panoramic view of social consciousness and unforgettable characters.
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