The Glass Castle: Jeannette Walls’ Chaotic Childhood

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What is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls about? How does the book discuss her the Walls family?

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls details her childhood and early adulthood as she deals with her parents’ neglect and abuse. Jeannette and her siblings were often hungry, and had to fend for themselves. They got through by depending on each other, and the love they had for their family.

Keep reading to find out more about The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls, and how she came to terms with her tumultuous childhood.

In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls is Reminded of Her Past

In beginning of The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls saw the unmistakable image of her mother digging through trash one March night. Wind whipped down the streets of New York City. It had been months since Jeannette had seen her mother. She was in a taxi dressed up for a fancy party, and her mother, Rose Mary, stood fifteen feet away. 

Rose Mary’s hair was worn, mussed, and gray, and she was thin with sunken features. For a second, Jeannette remembered other images of her mother—swan diving off cliffs, painting landscapes, reading Shakespeare to Jeannette and her siblings. 

When Rose Mary glanced up, Jeannette ducked below the window. She didn’t want to be recognized and possibly outed as this homeless woman’s child. She was only blocks away from her party. Any of the other guests might see her and uncover the truth of who she was. 

Jeannette tried to offer her parents assistance, but Rose Mary pushed the idea away. They didn’t need Jeannette’s money. Rose Mary said if Jeannette wanted to help her, she could buy her an electrolysis treatment because looking good raises your spirits. 

The Glass Castle: Jeannette Walls’ Childhood

In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls earliest memory is the day she caught on fire when she was three years old. Her family, which included Rose Mary; her father, Rex; older sister, Lori, and younger brother, Brian, lived in a trailer in southern Arizona. Jeannette was wearing a pink party dress and stirring hot dogs in boiling water. She had to stand on a chair to reach the pot. 

Jeannette knew how to cook hot dogs. She did it often as the only means of having something to eat. Her mother was usually consumed with painting, as she was now in the next room. The only other person home was her little brother. The bottom edge of Jeannette’s dress brushed up against the flames and consumed one side of her body. Rose Mary put the flames out with a blanket and calmly asked their neighbor to drive them to the hospital. Rex was out with the car.

The Walls Family Origins in The Glass Castle

Author Jeannette Walls didn’t know much about her father’s past. He never liked to talk about his upbringing in Welch, West Virginia or his parents. All she knew was that Rex left home when he was seventeen to join the Air Force. 

When Rex met Rose Mary, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. The day he met her, he said they were going to get married. Rose Mary was coy at first, stating that twenty-three men had already tried to marry her, but Rex was persistent. He wore her down until she said yes, and they were married six months later. 

Lori was conceived a few months after the wedding. A year later, their second child, Mary Charlene, was born but died nine months later from sudden infant death syndrome. Two years after Mary Charlene’s death, Jeannette was born. Rose Mary called her the replacement child. Brian came along a year later. He was born in mid-seizure and couldn’t breathe. Rose Mary said he was likely a “goner,” but Brian lived, and the seizures stopped. 

Rose Mary never showed much emotion about Mary Charlene. She said it was God’s decision, and he’d had his reasons for taking her back. But Rex was a different story. Rex was the one who’d found her dead in the crib, and whenever her name came up, he’d leave the room. After her death, Rex changed. He started drinking, became moody, and started to get fired from every job he got. 

At one point, Rex sold Rose Mary’s diamond wedding ring for cash without telling her. The stone was big, and Rose Mary’s mother, Grandma Smith, had paid for it. After that, Rose Mary brought the stolen ring up whenever she was angry with Rex. But Rex said he would buy her a bigger ring as soon as they were rich.

The Skedaddle

The Walls family was never in one place for long. Every now and then, Rex would wake everyone up and proclaim they had fifteen minutes to grab their stuff. It was time to skedaddle. They never had much to pack, just a few cast-iron pots and pans, Rex’s gun, and Rose Mary’s paintings, art supplies, and archery set. Author Jeannette Walls describes these situations as the skedaddle.

Rex said there were people after him, which was why they always had to skedaddle. He referred to them as vampires, Nazis, or corporate sharks trying to steal his ideas. There were also FBI agents with some mysterious grievance against him. In reality, as Rose Mary often said when Rex wasn’t around, they were simply running from bill collectors. 

For a month or two, Rex would find work as an engineer or electrician after lying about degrees and work experience he didn’t have. When he was bored with one job, he’d find a random odd job to keep money coming in. Other times, he’d bet what little money they had playing poker. 

Life as They Knew It

Although the locations always changed, the kind of people they called neighbors rarely did. In each town, they’d find people struggling the same as they did. There’d be former criminals, prostitutes, veterans, and old people who’d lived there so long, they started to look as weathered as their surroundings. 

None of the children had many friends. Sometimes, author Jeannette Walls and her siblings went to school, but more often, their parents taught them at home. Rose Mary taught them to read and challenged them with difficult books for older kids or adults. Rex was knowledgeable in math and science and contributed lessons in those subjects. They also learned survival skills. Rex taught them Morse code and how to shoot a gun and use a bow and arrow. Jeannette was a crack shot by age four, which Rex said would be useful in a shootout with law enforcement. 

Both Rex and Rose Mary were at home in the desert. They knew how to work the land, which plants were toxic or medicinal, and where to find water sources. Rose Mary promoted unpurified water over the high-falutin chlorinated water the “namby-pambies” drank in the cities. Toothpaste was baking soda and hydrogen peroxide rubbed on with their fingers. 

Food was always a scarcity in the household. The family had no routine surrounding meals. When they had food, they devoured it in great quantities quickly. When they didn’t, it was up to each one to scrounge for sustenance. They ate whatever they could from whatever source they could find. 

The Yellow Brick Road and Plans for a Glass Castle

Rex had big plans for the family’s future. He was going to find gold and turn everything around. Rex was considered a bit of a genius by those who knew him. He was handy and could fix anything with a little ingenuity, such as the time he fixed a neighbor’s TV with an elbow noodle. He was well-versed in high-level mathematics, physics, and electrical engineering. He studied energy creation and fancied himself an inventor. 

Rex was building a machine that would separate gold from dirt and rocks. It was called the Prospector, and it would help the family secure a stockpile of gold nuggets they could use to support themselves. He worked on his machine behind the house and let the kids help. 

Jeannette believed in her father’s wisdom and abilities. She loved when he told stories about his great feats of bravery in the Air Force, which always ended in him saving a soldier or a whole troop from death and danger. He’d helped save thousands from drowning after fixing a part of the Hoover Dam, and he’d thwarted a terrorist attack on the Air Force base after meeting the guy in a bar. The stories were always told in a way that made Rex the big hero.

These stories were often replaced by the outlandish plans for their futures. The most significant of Rex’s plans was the Glass Castle, a house made completely out of glass and operated by solar power. He’d drawn up blueprints and took them everywhere they went. Once the Prospector found gold, he’d begin construction on the house. In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls found out that the house would never be built, and she left home to pursue a new life.

The Glass Castle: Jeannette Walls’ Chaotic Childhood

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Jeannette Walls's "The Glass Castle" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Glass Castle summary:

  • The author's unbelievable childhood as her absent parents went on alcoholic binges
  • How Jeannette and her siblings escaped their parents to strike out on their own
  • The complicated relationship Jeannette had with her parents before they died

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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