A memoir from the mid-2000s, The Glass Castle is about Jeannette Walls whose job is writing for a gossip column in a successful magazine. She is living in the upper echelons of New York society; the book begins with her leaving her Park Avenue address in a taxi. On her way to yet another glamorous party, she notices her mother, Rose Mary Walls, on the street going through a trash can looking for food.
In the second of the book’s four parts, we are given a deeper look into how things have ended up this way for the Walls family. The beginning of Part 2 is actually Jeannette’s first memory from her childhood. She is only three years old and cooking hot dogs on the stove for herself in their home in Southern Arizona. Inevitably, her dress catches fire and she has to spend six weeks at the hospital. Her parents lament her staying there but see no other choice. Their dislike of modern medicine is in line with their other suspicions. They don’t believe in anything that is institutionalized, wanting instead to live on their own “self-sufficiently” as they would put it. Jeannette’s fascination with fire begins early on, further brought on by Dad explaining the science behind it.
Dad’s great knowledge in both math and physics is an employable skill he is adamant not to use. He forgoes the jobs he could get under a manager for odd jobs around town, or even playing poker. Mom is more right-brained, the yin to his yang. She is curious in nature and more liberal-minded but often prioritizes herself over her own children. The Walls family rarely stays longer than a few months in a town. It’s a normal and expected event for Dad to wake everyone up in the middle of the night because they’re leaving town again. In fact, the kids have gotten quite used to not being able to have many possessions. They all have a few things that are special to them that they guard closely, like Jeannette with her collection of rocks.
They do this because the parents are usually trying to evade bill collectors that are looking for them. They believe the government is absolutely corrupt, amongst other conspiracies, which is why they like to live in isolated rural areas in the desert. As a kid, Jeannette enjoys living like this. She’s usually allowed to roam freely wherever she wants and rarely has to go to school. Dad often entertains the three kids with stories of his time in the Air Force. He also shows them his blueprints for a castle he wants to build out in the desert, the Glass Castle, he calls it. Dad sometimes drinks too much, but it’s not too much of a problem, so no one says anything.
The Walls settle down in Battle Mountain, Nevada for much longer than they usually do. After almost a year in the same place, things start going south for the family. Jeannette’s older sister Lori gets in trouble for shooting at a boy called Billy Dean to protect her little sister. Jeannette had rejected Billy’s advances earlier, and he came to their house with a BB gun looking for revenge. Dad is almost never home, spending his day in one of two places, the Owl Club or the Green Lantern. The first is a bar, and the second, as Jeannette learns much later, is a whorehouse. It gets so bad that eventually, the kids are only able to eat by selling cans and bottles they have scavenged. Jeannette’s siblings have lost all faith in their father due to his alcoholism, but Jeannette takes much longer to see this. She is his favorite, after all.
They move to their maternal grandmother’s huge house in Phoenix after she dies and leaves it to them. Things almost start to look up for the Walls family while living in Grandma Smith’s house. Jeannette asks Dad to quit drinking for her as a present for her birthday, and he does. After a few months, however, he’s back at it, and it’s much worse than it ever was.
Mom thinks maybe a change of scenery will help the absentee parenting and alcoholism, so she uproots the family yet again, except without Dad’s permission this time. They move to Welch, West Virginia, the town where Dad grew up. The kids are sorry to leave the big house and nice town behind, with Jeannette especially upset about leaving the first place she’d ever felt at home. Welch is in sharp contrast to their previous home and its many happy memories. It used to be known for its coal mining, but the town fell into disarray along with the economy when the mines were shut down and thousands of people were left jobless. The kids meet their paternal grandparents for the first time, and it’s not a pleasant experience. Their grandmother, Erma, is always in a bad mood and rude to everyone. Their Uncle Stanley tries to sexually assault Jeannette, but she gets away and avoids being alone with him after. At school, the teachers are unappreciative of Jeannette’s willingness to learn and the other kids in her class taunt her for her family’s financial struggles.
This is the town where the lifestyle the Walls have lead finally catches up to them. What used to be fun for the kids has now turned into a nightmare. They don’t enjoy the “adventure” of town-hopping or the conditions they have to live in. Dad is home less than ever, spending almost all of his time drinking outside. Mom doesn’t care about having the kids fed, or the house clean anymore. She spends her time working on her art, leaving the kids no one to depend on. They have to scavenge to feed themselves. Meanwhile, they’ve moved out of their grandparents’ to a broken-down house on Little Hobart Street. The place is in ruins, and it doesn’t have basic necessities like electricity, or indoor plumbing. The kids still try to make the most of it; Jeannette and her younger brother Brian start to dig a pit for Dad’s Glass Castle behind their house. They spend every free minute they have digging and eventually get the hole deeper than their height. One day, Dad asks them to throw all their accumulated garbage in it, because they can’t afford the fee garbage collectors take. This is the moment things change for Jeannette; she finally realizes that he is not ever going to be able to give them a happy life.
Lori returns from summer camp, which she was government sponsored at, and she and Jeannette make plans to get out of Welch and escape their family. Together, they start saving every penny they can towards getting Lori to New York and into art school. Despite Dad stealing the money for his drinking habit, they soldier on. Eventually Lori graduates and leaves, she works as a waitress in New York and is saving money for school.
In the meantime, Jeannette’s discovered a love for journalism through working at her school newspaper. She leaves for New York after her junior year and gets a job at a newspaper in the city. Jeannette enrolls in Barnard College and one at a time, her little brother and sister move to New York too.
Mom and Dad are still under the delusion that they haven’t been left behind. They move to New York so the family can be together. Lori and Brian let them live with them at first, but Dad still has an out-of-control drinking habit, and Mom won’t quit hoarding. They still have difficulty conforming. Eventually, Mom and Dad become homeless, and still won’t accept any help from their kids.
Jeannette graduates college and gets work at a magazine. She also starts living with her boyfriend Eric on Park Avenue. In stark contrast, her parents are living in abandoned housing on the Lower East Side. Slowly, Jeannette has come to understand that home is something different for every person. Dad’s heavy drinking and chain-smoking throughout his life mean he is dying at barely sixty. A heart attack kills him, which makes Jeannette realize she hasn’t found her home yet, even though she’s escaped her old life. Jeannette divorces her now husband Eric and leaves the apartment they shared in Park Avenue. The book finishes off with a fast forward to five years after. Jeannette is in a happy marriage and lives in a farmhouse in the country. It’s the first property she’s ever bought. Mom is still living in the abandoned buildings she used to with Dad, but the city government is actually willing to sell them to the squatters who have been there for so long at only a dollar each. Jeannette no longer feels ashamed of where she came from and holds no grudges against her parents for how they were. She recognizes both their strengths and weaknesses and understands she was only able to become who she is because of how they raised her.