The Glass Castle is a 2005 memoir that recounts author Jeannette Walls' unconventional childhood. Jeannette, along with her siblings, undergo many hardships, including poverty and sexual assault as their alcoholic father fails to find steady work. The story follows Jennette's life from the time she is a toddler until she is old enough to move to New York City, where she and her siblings build a new life for themselves. As she reflects on her life, the adult Jeannette is able to appreciate the freedom of her childhood while condemning her parents' actions, and is eventually at peace with her past.
Jeannette Walls is the second oldest of 4 children born to Rex Walls, an alcoholic and Rose Mary Walls, a painter and artist. Until Jeannette is 6 the family moves around Arizona and California every few months when Rex and Mary's debts grow too numerous. When Jeannette is 7 the family moves to Battle Mountain, Nevada where they enjoy stability for the first time as Rex works for the mining company and the family lives in a converted railway station. Eventually Rex loses his job and the children grow hungry.
Rose Mary, who has a teaching certificate, is able to get a job teaching at the local school but Rex quickly siphons away her pay check. Even so, the family is happy there until a young boy develops a fixation on Jeannette and attacks her with a bb gun when the children are home alone. Jeannette's older sister Lori retrieves their father's pistol to scare him away but the police are called and when Rex and Rose Mary learn that the children might be taken away from them, they decide to run away to Phoenix, Arizona. Jeannette initially believes they are moving to live with her maternal grandmother, Grandma Smith, but on the way over she is informed Grandma Smith is dead and they are going to live in the property Rose Mary has inherited from her mother.
Initially life is happy for the children as their mother's house is huge and Grandma Smith also left her a significant amount of money. However the money quickly disappears and the house falls into a state of disrepair. For Jeannette's 10th birthday Rex asks what she would like and Jeannette asks him to stop drinking. He ties himself to a bed for a week in order to get over his need for alcohol and afterwards decides to take the family on a trip to the desert. When their car breaks down in the desert a woman who picks them up and takes them to the city refers to them as "poor" causing Rex to relapse. Rose Mary decides since they have no money it is time to move again and takes the family to their paternal grandparents in Welch.
In Welch the children meet their paternal grandparents and uncle for the first time. They are enrolled in school, however since Rose Mary abandoned their records and the children have different accents than the locals they are placed in a class for slow children. Jeannette is repeatedly beat up by local girls, however when she helps the neighbour of the lead bully she is eventually no longer targeted. Rex and Rose Mary decide to return to Phoenix in order to retrieve some valuable items they abandoned. While they are gone Jeannette walks in on her grandmother molesting Brian. Lori gets into a physical altercation with their grandmother and they realize it is likely their father was molested as well. Rather than defend his children Rex admonishes them upon his return. They are thrown out of the family home and relocate to a small rotting home with no indoor plumbing which Rex acquires as it has land large enough to build his dream house, a glass castle on the property.
Though Rex assures the children that their situation is temporary they live at the house for years as it falls further into disarray as Rex refuses to repair it. The only money they have during this time is through odd jobs that Rex provides and infrequent checks Rose Mary receives from an oil company leasing a piece of property she owns. The children take to dumpster diving to survive. Jeannette eventually begs her mother to leave her father so they can at least go on welfare but her mother refuses. Rose Mary eventually takes a teaching job after a man from child protective services pays them a visit. The children believe their lives will change after their mother has work but money continues to evaporate and their mother suffers repeated nervous breakdowns from teaching.
The summer she is 13 Jeannette is left in charge of the household as her mother leaves to take teaching classes and her sister is away on scholarship. Left with the money to run the household Jeannette gives some to her father and ends up unwittingly working with him in a pool hustling scam where she is groped and almost raped by a much older man. Afterwards she refuses to indulge in any more of her father's scams and in an effort to find money is hired at her first real job working at a jewelry store.
When Rose Mary returns from her teaching seminar she decides to quit teaching to focus once again on her art. Disgusted, Lori and Jeannette hatch a plan for Lori to move to New York City with Jeannette following shortly after. Lori, Jeannette and Brian work for the better part of a year trying to accumulate money to finance the move. Shortly before Lori is set to move Jeannette discovers that Rex has stolen their money. Lori is disheartened but Jeannette receives an offer to go babysit for the summer and get a ticket back home and asks the couple to take Lori instead and buy her a ticket to New York.
Jeannette begins to make plans to go to university in New York City and realizes that if she wants she can leave a year early and complete 12th grade there. Rose Mary is indifferent to her leaving but Rex seems heartbroken and sees her off to the bus station. In New York Jeannette is able to get an internship at a newspaper after graduation and encourages her brother Brian to move to New York with her and Lori to which he acquiesces. When Maureen is 12 Lori asks her to move in with them as the house in Welch is on the verge of being condemned. Maureen readily agrees. A short while later Jeannette receives a call from Rose Mary who informs her that she and Rex have moved to the city to be with their children. Though Lori and Brian attempt to help their parents they eventually have to block them from their apartments and their parents become homeless. They finally locate some abandoned buildings and squat there and Maureen eventually moves back in with them as she enters her twenties. A fight eventually breaks out between Maureen and Rose Mary and Maureen tries to stab Rose Mary. She is arrested and forced to spend a year in a mental institution. When she is finally released she decides to move to California.
A few years later Rex calls Jeannette and tells her he is dying. He dies a few weeks later. Years later the family gathers together on Thanksgiving where they toast Rex.