The Glass Castle follows author Jeannette Walls through her first-hand experience of growing up in an unorthodox and toxic family. The memoir focuses on Jeannette’s complicated yet loving relationship with her father, and the resilience of her siblings in the face of poverty and abuse. Jeannette covers her life from very early childhood to adulthood, depicting how her wonderful and intimate relationship with her father devolves as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with his behavior and he sinks deeper into alcoholism. Despite dealing with an unstable father and a mother who refuses to work, the Walls children bravely pull themselves out of poverty and achieve success, but their relationship with their parents remains complex and bittersweet far into their adulthood. The memoir explores themes of cyclical abuse, living adventurously and outside the box, and resilience and compassion in the face of extreme hardship and familial tension.

The memoir begins with a young Jeannette setting herself on fire while attempting to cook hotdogs unsupervised. Her stint in the hospital introduces her mother, cool and practical despite the crisis, and her father, boisterous and larger-than-life, entertaining the nurses and his family with his tall tales. The inciting incident occurs when the family, who have not been paying their bills, flee the state in the middle of the night to elude the bill collectors. This escape marks the commencement of years spent living on the road, quickly moving out of town any time law enforcement is on their scent, or Rex is fired from one of his many jobs. Although the constant motion is difficult, both the children and their parents are content with their free-spirited life. Jeannette is particularly like her father – adventurous, inquisitive, and brave – and she loves their energetic, minimal existence despite its dangers and hardships. Eventually, the family settles in Phoenix, Arizona, where they continue their unorthodox ways but enjoy the stability of having a permanent home. However, in the memoir’s rising action, Rex puts the family’s situation in jeopardy by becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol. He loses his job and grows paranoid about corruption in the city. While he admirably sobers up at Jeannette’s request, he’s unable to stay on the wagon forever, and eventually succumbs once again to his addiction. The action continues to climb as the family moves to Welch, West Virginia, Rex’s run-down childhood home.

In Welch, the Walls children experience poverty unlike any they’ve known and struggle to make ends meet as their parents become increasingly unstable. Rex’s alcoholism causes him to be absent from the home, and he often steals what little money they have. Rose Mary, dealing with depression and unwilling to work, spends much of her time working on her art while the children starve. In Welch, both Brian and Jeannette experience sexual assault at the hands of their adult family members, leading Jeannette to speculate on whether her father may have similarly been sexually molested as a child. The Walls siblings become increasingly desperate to escape their current condition, and they work together to send Lori to New York City to establish herself. Soon, Jeannette, Brian, and eventually Maureen follow suit. Jeannette’s departure from Welch is bittersweet, as she knows she needs to leave in order to survive, but parting from her father, with whom she shares a deep love despite his faults, is painful.

Rex and Rose Mary eventually follow their children to New York City, and although the family continues to have a complicated dynamic, Jeannette and her siblings are now in control of their lives and can have a healthier and more distanced relationship with their parents. The memoir’s climax includes two major events: First, Maureen, who falls back in with her parents and becomes addicted to drugs, stabs Rose Mary and is sent to rehab. Her mental condition and her decision to stop contact with her family sends the Walls children into a shared state of sadness, and they become further distanced from their parents as the consequences of their parents’ negligence become painfully clear. Second, Rex falls ill, and, expecting to die within weeks, has an important final conversation with Jeannette where the two affirm their love for one another and give each other closure. Rex dies soon after of a heart attack, and Jeannette’s world is forever altered by the loss of her father, arguably the most important person in her life. In the memoir’s falling action, Jeannette covers the successful adult lives of each of her siblings and herself, including their careers and marriages. Her entire family, including her mother, gather for Thanksgiving with their children and spouses to celebrate and reminisce about Rex and their childhoods. A reconciliation with Maureen is on the horizon, and Jeannette reflects on how her family, and the universe at large, always exists in the space between “turbulence and order.”