Dad promises that the family’s nomadic, adventurous life is temporary and that one day they will strike it rich by using the Prospector, a gold-hunting contraption he plans to invent. On occasion, Dad spends what little money they have on liquor, drinks too much, and comes home in a violent rage. Despite his periodic bad behavior, the kids admire him and love to listen to him tell stories about his past heroics. His sworn objective is to build his family the Glass Castle, a large home made of glass, complete with solar panels and a water-purification system.
Dad grew up in Welch, an old coal mining town in West Virginia, and left when he turned seventeen to join the air force and become a pilot. He met Mom when he saw her dive off a canyon to a lake forty feet below and jumped in after her. They got married six months later. Jeannette finds this romantic, but Mom says that Dad wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she was just trying to get away from her mother. She also frequently notes that Dad pawned her wedding ring. Dad promises to buy her a new one when he finds gold.
After they got married, Dad left the air force because he wanted to make more money. Mom quickly had four children, each one year apart: Lori, Mary Charlene, Jeannette, and Brian. Mary Charlene died of crib death when she was an infant, and Mom says Jeannette was born to replace her. Mom speaks cavalierly about Mary Charlene’s death, but Dad never recovered. After her death, he started drinking frequently and lost every job he got.
When Jeannette is four years old, Dad decides they should move to Las Vegas so he can make some money for the Prospector in the casinos. On the way to Vegas, Mom and Dad stop at a bar in Nevada and leave the kids in the car. When they return and continue on the road, Dad drives over some railroad tracks and Jeannette goes flying out of the backseat. She sits on the roadside bleeding, sore, and afraid for an indeterminate amount of time before Dad realizes she’s gone and returns to retrieve her. He refers to her bloody nose as a “snot locker,” and the whole family laughs.
In Vegas, the family lives in a hotel for about a month. Dad makes a lot of money, and says he has a system for winning at the blackjack tables. Every day, Dad buys the kids presents and takes them out to eat. Eventually, one of the dealers figures out Dad’s scheme, and they have to do the skedaddle.
Dad says that the mafia will be after them, so they go all the way to San Francisco next. They stay in another hotel, where the kids play all day while Mom and Dad are out. In the hotel, Jeannette plays with matches and sets small fires in the toilet. One night, she wakes up and discovers the curtain over her head has caught fire. Dad saves everyone and helps put out the fire. Jeannette worries that fire may be targeting her personally, noticing that her life is especially chaotic.