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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.
This section introduces Dad’s dream of building the Glass Castle, which represents a hope of future stability and happiness for the family. Even at this early stage, several red flags suggest that Dad will never actually build the Glass Castle. For example, he plans to fund its construction with a gold-finding Prospector device that he always seems to be working on. Because Dad never appears to make any progress on the device, we start to wonder whether he has a concrete idea of how to create it at all. In addition, Dad’s plan to strike gold in the desert in the 1960s reads as anachronistic and romantic, more like a story of the Wild West than the mid-twentieth century. Dad’s promise to buy Mom a new wedding ring when he finds gold also casts doubt on his Glass Castle plans. Dad uses the offer of a new ring to shut down Mom’s anger over his pawning of her wedding ring, which makes it sound like an excuse instead of an actual pledge. If we do not believe Dad’s intent to buy a new ring for Mom, we must also wonder if he truly believes he will build the Glass Castle.
Mom’s brief interjections to Dad’s bedtime stories raise questions about the stability of their marriage. Dad’s anger at Mom when she rolls her eyes at the stories makes him seem both insecure and dangerous. Mom’s sarcasm draws attention to her need to undermine him. She has not yet intervened in any of Dad’s upsetting antics, such as abandoning the cat, but instead attacks his self-important bedtime stories, an act which ultimately only hurts his ego. Her passive-aggressive approach indicates an unhealthy dynamic where she provokes Dad but doesn’t actually challenge him. Furthermore, their conflicting interpretations of his marriage proposal suggest that he harassed and bullied Mom into marrying him. Therefore, when Mom says she didn’t know life with Dad would be worse than life with her own overbearing mother, we understand that she traded one overbearing and controlling person in her life for another. Mom and Dad clearly have unhealthy and abusive patterns in the way they relate to each other, which adds a sense of foreboding to what is to come.
When the San Francisco hotel catches fire, Jeannette’s fascination with fire turns into a fear that the element itself wants to hurt her. This personification of fire indicates that Jeannette has identified her life as uniquely chaotic but cannot yet understand the true source of this chaos. Her confusion may partially come from the way her parents encourage her to play with fire after her hospital stay in order to conquer her fear, displacing the blame of what hurt Jeannette onto the fire and not the lack of supervision. Dad even describes her hospital stay at age three as her having won a fight with fire, as if fire were an opponent that actively attacked Jeannette. Interestingly, Jeannette wonders about a kinship between the fires, recognizing instinctually that they have a common source. However, the true common denominator between the fires is her parents’ negligence. Jeannette’s observation that her life could catch fire at any moment also indicates that she has noticed the instability in her life, but just as before she cannot identify that Mom and Dad, not fire, create the unpredictability.
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