Jeannette Walls begins her memoir with a scene from adulthood. While in a cab in New York City, Jeannette looks out the window and sees her mother dumpster diving. She ducks down in her seat to avoid being recognized, but later invites her mother to lunch to talk about how she can help. Mom insists that she and Dad like being homeless and admonishes Jeannette for being ashamed of her own family. From here, Jeannette’s narration goes back in time to her very first memory. At three years old, Jeannette lives in a trailer park with Mom, Dad, her older sister Lori, and her little brother Brian. Jeannette’s tutu catches fire while she cooks hot dogs over a stove, and her mother rushes her to the hospital for an emergency skin graft. After six weeks in the hospital, Dad smuggles her out without paying the bill. Back at home, Jeannette goes back to cooking unsupervised and starts playing with matches.
One night, Dad makes the family pack all their belongings into the family car and move towns in the middle of the night, a routine he calls “doing the skedaddle.” Over the next several years, the Wallses do the skedaddle dozens of times, moving all over to stay ahead of debt collectors and law enforcement. They spend a month or two in larger cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco, where Dad can make quick money by gambling. Most of the time, however, the Wallses live in isolated desert mining towns, where Mom and Dad teach their children reading and math, as well as specialized survival skills. Dad drinks often and struggles to keep a job for long, but he promises his family that their nomadic lifestyle is temporary. He promises to find gold and build his family the Glass Castle, a large, self-sustaining home made out of glass.
When Jeannette is in first grade, Mom gives birth to another baby, Maureen. Dad moves the family to Battle Mountain, Nevada, where he works as an electrician. The family enjoys six months of relative stability until Dad loses his job. After an explosive argument, Mom gets a teaching job. Dad confiscates most of her paycheck, and the family continues to go hungry. Their time in Nevada comes to an end when Billy Deel, a delinquent neighbor boy whose advances Jeannette rejected, comes to the Walls residence and opens fire with his BB gun. Jeannette returns fire with Dad’s pistol. She misses him on purpose, but the police get involved. The family flees to Phoenix. On the way to Phoenix, Jeannette learns that Grandma Smith has passed, leaving Mom a large sum of money and a house. They move into the massive house, and Dad gets a job as an electrician. For about a year, the kids enjoy regular meals, their own bicycles, and public schooling. Unfortunately, Dad loses his job, and his alcoholism reaches crushing lows. The family is once again destitute. Mom decides it’s time to move to Dad’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia.
When the Wallses arrive in Welch, they stay with Jeannette’s paternal grandmother, Erma. Erma is a bitter, unwelcoming host, and most people in Welch regard the Wallses as self-important outsiders. When Mom and Dad leave for an extended road trip to Phoenix, Erma molests Brian. Jeannette and Lori confront her, but Erma retaliates violently. Dad takes Erma’s side when he returns, but Erma evicts the family. The Wallses buy a small, rotting house with no running water or indoor plumbing. Dad admits that the conditions are not ideal, but promises to use the land to begin construction on the Glass Castle. To help Dad get started on the Glass Castle, Brian and Jeannette dig a large hole for the foundation, but the family soon fills it with garbage. To survive, the kids start dumpster diving and stealing food from their classmates and neighbors. Desperate, Jeannette begs Mom to divorce Dad so they can go on welfare, but Mom refuses.
When the Wallses get a visit from child protective services, Mom finds a teaching job. The money could solve their problems, but Dad’s extensive drinking once again drains their funds, and the family continues to go hungry. The following summer, Mom goes to Charleston for several weeks to renew her teaching license. Left in control of the family finances, Jeannette finds that she, too, gives into Dad’s demands for more money. When Mom returns from Charleston, she announces that she will quit her job and devote all her time to art. Jeannette finally confronts Mom and Dad about their selfishness, but Dad whips her in retaliation. Appalled, Jeannette and Lori plan to move to New York City as soon as possible. Jeannette, Lori, and Brian find jobs around Welch and save all their money for almost a year, but Dad steals the money just months before Lori’s planned departure. In the end, Jeannette secures Lori a summer babysitting job that includes a bus ticket to New York City as payment.
Lori loves life in New York City, where she works in a restaurant and lives in a women’s hostel. Jeannette moves to the city a year later and finishes high school there, interning at a Brooklyn newspaper for credit. Brian follows a year later. Jeannette starts college at Barnard, putting herself through with grants, loans, and savings from odd jobs. Maureen moves in with Lori at age twelve. Dad accuses Lori of stealing his children, and he and Mom move to New York City three years later. After being kicked out of several apartments, Mom and Dad first live on the streets, and then become squatters. At this point, Jeannette has married and works at a prestigious magazine. Lori is an artist, and Brian is a police officer. Maureen drops out of college and moves in with Mom and Dad. Maureen tries to stab Mom, and must spend a year in a psychiatric hospital. The family drifts apart, and a year later Dad dies of a heart attack. Five years after Dad’s death, Jeannette and her second husband, John, host the family for Thanksgiving, though without Maureen. They toast to Dad’s life.