The Joshua tree is a twisty, sturdy succulent plant that grows in the desert. In The Glass Castle, Rose Mary Walls—mom to protagonist Jeannette—spots a Joshua tree as the family flees from San Francisco to the Mohave Desert. Captivated by its beauty, Jeannette's mom has her husband stop the car so that she can set up an easel and paint its picture. In this memoir of an incredibly challenging childhood and family life, the Joshua tree represents resilience, strength, and beauty evolving from harsh circumstances.
Although gnarled and grotesque in appearance, the Joshua tree has valuable properties. It is a good source of fiber and food; Native Americans used its tough leaves for weaving textiles and its seeds for nutrition. Nineteenth-century homesteaders used the plant’s limbs and trunks for construction. Most importantly, the Joshua tree thrives under severe external conditions, flowering despite its hostile environment. Jeannette's mother first spots the tree:
It stood in a crease of land where the desert ended and the mountain began, forming a wind tunnel. From the time the Joshua tree was a tiny sapling, it had been so beaten down by the whipping wind that, rather than trying to grow skyward, it had grown in the direction that the wind pushed it. It existed now in a permanent state of windblown-ness, leaning over so far that it seemed ready to topple, although, in fact, its roots held it firmly in place.
Similarly, Jeannette and her siblings are buffeted by and must follow along with their parents’ nomadic lifestyle. From the time they are young (i.e., tiny saplings), they are “beaten down” by their parents’ neglect. Always ready to flee, the family is in a constant state of “windblown-ness.” Fall-out from neglect and conflict frequently make the family seem “ready to topple,” but the members’ strong bonds (like the tree’s roots) hold them “firmly in place” and together.
Despite negative outward appearances, the Walls family cultivates valuable properties in the children, such as self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. For example, although toddler Jeannette should not have been operating a stove (nurses and doctors “asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three”), her parents’ lack of attention forces her and her siblings to develop practical skills; they learn to take care of themselves at an early age. Mature leaves on a Joshua tree are sharp, pointed, and concave, in order to provide protection as well as minimize water loss through evaporation. The leaves need to retain what little water they receive from infrequent desert rain showers. Similarly, the children learn how to protect and fend for themselves as well as make do with little. For example, when Jeannette and her older sister, Lori, fight over the last piece of food in the house—a stick of margarine—they display ingenuity. Lori mixes some margarine with sugar to form a frosting-like treat and shows Jeannette how to do the same to fix herself a snack.
Adding to the Joshua tree’s unique appearance is its irregular shape. A vertical stem/trunk grows up from the ground; branches then veer off and grow into different directions at various angles. Likewise, the four Walls children—Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen—all follow divergent paths and develop lives and identities away from their parents.
Finally, the Joshua tree represents how beauty can develop within hostile conditions that appear extremely negative on the outside. When Jeanette first sees the tree, she thinks it looks awful. "It looked scraggly and freakish, permanently stuck in its twisted, tortured position.” Her mother, however, thinks it is “one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen.” Jeanette later tries to protect a young Joshua tree just as the siblings learn to watch out for and help each other survive:
One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.
Mom frowned at me. "You'd be destroying what makes it special," she said. "It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives it its beauty."
As harsh and dysfunctional as their childhood and upbringing was, it actually motivates Jeannette and her three sibling to thrive as adults. Lori is a successful illustrator in Manhattan, Brian is a retired police officer studying to become a teacher, and Maureen is childhood trauma survivor. Jeannette herself is a renowned and bestselling writer and journalist.