two female faces superimposed upon a desert landscape

The Glass Castle

by Jeannette Walls

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The Glass Castle Summary

The Glass Castle is a memoir by Jeannette Walls in which she recounts her unconventional and oftentimes transient childhood.

  • Jeannette's mother Rose Mary is an artist, and her father Rex is an alcoholic. The family is frequently forced to move in order to avoid creditors.
  • Rose Mary and Rex are neglectful parents, and Jeannette and her siblings often go days without food.
  • Despite these hardships, Jeannette excels in school and is accepted to Barnard College in New York. She eventually finds success in the publishing industry and gets married.
  • Rose Mary and Rex continue to choose to live as impoverished drifters.

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Last Updated July 21, 2023.

Despite her fears that no one would speak to her after she wrote her memoir The Glass Castle (2005), Jeannette Walls has since learned that she is very popular with the reading public. Her memoir is a huge success, selling millions of copies all over the world. People and critics are truly fascinated with her story.

Plot Summary

Jeannette and her three siblings were raised by parents no fiction writer could have ever made up. They all but starved their children; told them leaky roofs and bitter cold would make them strong; and then otherwise ignored them. The family was often on the move, escaping from creditors in the middle of the night in cars that sputtered down the road at no better than 35 miles per hour.  

Each time they moved, the children were told they had to leave everything behind except for one special thing. With this, Jeannette packed away her favorite rock. It was the only item she carried with her from an Arizona house to a desert cabin to a shack in West Virginia.

The author grew up skinny and neglected, painting her skin with ink markers to camouflage the holes in her clothes. She went to school hungry and at lunch sat with her brother and read books. After lunch, they would search trashcans for discarded food.

Jeannette's maternal grandmother sometimes came to their rescue, putting them up in her home and feeding them. But Jeannette's father, Rex, was a stubborn man who had trouble holding down a job, and when his mother-in-law called him worthless, he uprooted his family again.

When the older woman died, Jeannette's mother, Rose Mary, inherited the house, which was filled with expensive furnishings. But Rose Mary refused to sell any of the goods even when they went days unable to afford food.  What money they did have, Rex tended to whittle away at bars, where he spent many of his days and nights.

Enthusiastic readers have consistently kept Walls's memoir on the best-seller lists, and critics have praised her writing.  Prior to completing her memoir, Walls wrote a gossip column, so she knew how to tell a good story. She told her own story, critics have concluded, without over-analyzing her parents and without falling into the trap of begging for pity. Reviewers have found that Walls tells her story objectively and even manages to keep her sense of humor.


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Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle begins with Jeannette as an adult, living in New York City. As she rides in the back of a taxi, she notices what looks like a homeless woman on the sidewalk. When Jeannette turns to look back, she realizes that woman is her mother. Jeannette slips down lower in her seat, not wanting her mother to see her. She also admits that she does not want anyone else to know that that woman who is rummaging through the trash is her mother. Jeannette is ashamed of these feelings, and later she contacts her mother and plans a meeting. When she is face to face with her mother, Jeannette offers money, but her mother, Rose Mary, refuses it. Rose Mary insists that she is doing well and needs no assistance. It is at this point that Jeannette then relates the story of how she was raised, explaining her relationship with her mother and father, and how her mother ended up living on the street.

When she was three, Jeannette was burned seriously enough to require a skin graft. When doctors ask how the burn happened, Jeannette tells them that she was cooking a hot dog when her dress...

(This entire section contains 1203 words.)

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erupted in flames. Her mother was busy painting, this three-year-old child tells the doctors. Shortly afterward, Jeannette’s father, Rex, comes to the hospital and steals his child away. Rex does not believe his daughter needs any more medical help. She will be all right. She is strong and the experience will make her even stronger. Through this story of the hot dog and the burns, Jeannette sets the stage for a pattern of neglect and other poor parenting skills that would go on to shape her childhood.

Jeannette portrays her mother as a woman who felt her own career was devastated because she had had children. Rose Mary complains about having to take care of children even though she rarely appears to do much for them. Rose Mary’s attention is most often focused on herself. She has been trained as a teacher but seldom works. When she does land a job at a school desperate enough to hire her, she claims she is overwhelmed by the paperwork of grading and evaluating and turns much of this chore over to her two oldest daughters, Lori and Jeannette, who are not yet teens. Rose Mary only goes to work when the family is desperately hungry because Rex has either lost another job or has blown his salary on gambling and alcohol.

The family often leaves its last abode in the middle of the night, moving from California to Arizona and later to West Virginia. They travel in cars that break down in the middle of the desert, forcing them to walk. Once Rex stashed his children in the back of a moving van and nearly lost them when the back door opened and he did not know it. He never explains why they must leave their homes so abruptly, but Jeannette insinuates that her father seemed to always be in trouble, mostly due to unpaid bills.

Rex and Rose Mary have one good trait. They encourage education.They teach the children to read and to do math. They inspire reading. Rose Mary teaches them to draw. Rex has a good mind for physics and science. Fortunately for the children, their parents are intelligent. However, the children rarely go to school when they are young. Instead they are often left on their own and told to entertain themselves. Jeannette and her brother Brian both like to explore. While they are still the age of elementary school students, they often go off into the desert by themselves to search for rocks. At one time, they find their father’s pistol and shoot it at a neighborhood bully. This is also the time when Rex comes home one day in a drunken stupor and all but throws his wife out of a second-floor window.

Despite her father’s antics and her mother’s lack of care, Jeannette espouses love for her parents. Her father once throws Jeannette into a deep pool of water and tells her to learn to swim. Jeannette feels as if she could have drowned, but she still loves her father. Her mother, Brian discovers one day, is eating a large candy bar behind the children’s back even though the children have not eaten in several days. Jeannette’s response is not outright anger and disgust; rather, she feels sorry for her mother’s weaknesses.

Much of the latter part of the story takes place in a mountain town called Welch located in West Virginia. The family goes there in desperation. Rex’s drinking was growing worse, with him abandoning the family for several days each week. Rose Mary hopes that in returning to Rex’s hometown, things will get better. So they leave the large Phoenix, Arizona, house that Rose Mary inherited after her wealthy mother dies, and they travel in yet another broken down car to Rex’s parents’ house in Welch.

Erma and Ted Walls are not happy to see the family, and they let the children know this. When Rex and Rose Mary leave the children there and return to Arizona to pick up some things they left behind, Erma abuses the children. When their parents return, Rex's mother tells him that he must find a new place for his family to live in. What Rex finds is a shack that sits haphazardly on the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of town. The roof leaks. The toilet does not work. And when winter comes around, they have no money to pay for electricity or to buy fuel for the heating stove.

The children go to school in Welch, but they more often than not go without food. To fill their empty stomachs, Jeannette and Brian raid the trashcans at school, finding leftover lunches that other students have discarded. By the time Jeannette and Lori are in high school, they are determined to get out of Welch and away from their parents as soon as they can. They work hard at jobs that pay little money. But they save every penny for a year. Just before Lori graduates and plans to move to New York City, Rex discovers their piggy bank and steals all their hard-earned cash.

By the end of the story, readers learn that all four children make it to New York, only to find, one day, that their parents have decided to follow them. Lori, Brian, and Jeannette have their own apartments and have started new lives. They are successful. Rex and Rose Mary first live on the streets then live as squatters in a rundown building. When the children offer to help them, the parents refuse, much as Rose Mary had refused help at the beginning of the memoir.