At her home in Southern Arizona, three-year old Jeannette Walls’ pink dress catches fire while she is cooking hot dogs in her family’s trailer. The account is described as the author’s first memory. Upon hearing her child’s screams, Jeannette’s mother rushes in from the other room and puts out the flames with a wool blanket. She then grabs Jeannette and her younger son, Brian, and goes to the neighboring trailer to ask for a ride to the hospital. Jeannette’s injuries are serious but the doctors are able to treat the burns by giving her a series of skin grafts, replacing the burned skin on her upper body with skin from her upper thigh. However, the nature of the accident prompts the doctors to ask Jeannette a series of questions about her life at home, particularly how it is that she was allowed to use the stove at such a young age. A young Jeannette answers matter-of-factly, asserting that her mother allowed her to cook often because she was ‘mature for [her] age’.
Jeannette enjoys the solitude and order of the hospital, qualities which do not characterize her home life. And she is excited to finally have a room to herself, instead of having to share one with her brother and sister. In the hospital Jeannette is first introduced to chewing gum by one of the nurses. Yet, Mr. and Mrs. Walls are not so pleased and they do not hide their disdain for the hospital and its staff. Mrs. Walls is upset that the nurse gave her daughter chewing gum without asking permission and Mr. Walls is unimpressed by the “ ‘med-school quacks’” that run the hospital. They tell Jeannette about a time when Lori, their eldest daughter, was stung by a scorpion in the desert and instead of taking her to the hospital they took her to a Navajo witch-doctor. Mr. Walls remarks that they should have done the same with Jeannette after her injury. The Walls’ dislike for hospitals is made more apparent when Brian falls off a couch and bloodies his head and Mr. and Mrs. Walls bandage it up themselves instead of taking him to a doctor. At one point Mr. Walls becomes so confrontational with the hospital staff that he is forcibly removed by hospital security. Soon afterward, escaping the hospital (and the accompanying hospital bill), Mr. Walls removes his daughter from her hospital bed without receiving clearance to do so.
After returning from the hospital, Jeannette becomes enthralled by fire. Her parents support this, insistent that she not be defeated or afraid of that which led to her injury. Not only does Jeannette resume cooking hot dogs on the stove (to the delight of her mother) but she also starts to steal her father’s matches. One day while playing with matches she accidentally burns her favorite toy, a Tinkerbell figurine, distorting the doll's face irreparably. Though Tinkerbell remains her favorite toy, Jeannette expresses hope that she could have given Tinkerbell skin graft surgery the way the doctors did for her.
The family has to move suddenly one night and in the rush Jeannette forgets to pack Tinkerbell. She hopes that Tinkerbell’s new owner will like her despite her melted face. The “skedaddle”, as Jeannette describes the move, is common for the Walls family, and is often characterized by a stealthy escape late in the night. Mr. Walls explains the need for such hasty relocation to his children by telling them that someone is after them, FBI agents or big business executives. Mrs. Walls corrects him, explaining to her children that they were in fact being pursued by bill collectors, not federal agents.
During these years the Walls family frequently relocates. They live temporarily in Arizona, Nevada, and California where Mr. Walls takes manual labor jobs until he is fired or the bill collectors come after them. When this happens the family moves again. On occasion the Walls stay with Grandma Smith, Rose Mary’s mother. However, these visits are frequently cut short when Rex and Grandma Smith get into an argument about her being uppity and him being unable to take care of his family. After such arguments, the family packs up once again in search of yet another mining town.
Both Rose Mary and Jeannette enjoy life in the desert. They find pleasure in the sandstorms, the rainstorms, and the wildlife. Rose Mary, having grown up in the desert, is particularly skilled at helping her family to survive. The children are home schooled by their parents and they are careful not to make any real attachments to the other children because they always know they will move again.
One day Rex announces plans to finally settle the family in one place for awhile. According to him, the family can stop moving from place to place as soon as he finds gold. In pursuit of gold, Rex begins working on an invention called ‘The Prospector’, a design intended to sift through sand detecting and separating gold nuggets from rocks and dirt by measuring the weight of each gathered piece.
Rex tells his children that once the Prospector is finished he will begin building the 'Glass Castle', a house with glass walls and ceilings, even a glass staircase, where the family can live and each of the children can have their own rooms.
Rex also promises to replace his wife's wedding ring once he finds enough gold. He had pawned the ring off for cash after squandering the family's funds on alcohol and gambling, habits Rex adopted after finding his daughter Mary Charlene dead in her crib one night. That incident forever changed Rex, plaguing him with dark moods and periodic drinking, but it did not affect Mrs. Wells nearly as badly. She saw Mary Charlene's death as a sign of God's protection, he only took her away because she was imperfect, but he blessed her with three other perfect children: Lori, Brian, and Jeannette.
Rex moves his family to Las Vegas in the hopes that he will make some money at the casinos. While he and his wife are gambling the children discuss their feelings about moving around so frequently. Jeannette says that she likes moving around and asks what would happen if they stayed in one place instead. Lori guesses that if they did that they would "get caught." While driving away from the casino, Jeannette falls out of the side door of the car and tumbles down a desert hill, bloodying her nose and getting pebbles and debris stuck in her skin. She waits for a long time by the place where she fell, fearing that her parents might abandon her. When her family finally returns, Jeannette refuses a hug from her father, blaming him for trying to leave her behind forever. However, her mood is lightened when Rex, trying to treat Jeannette's various injuries calls her nose a "snot locker", which she finds hilarious.
The family has to leave Las Vegas after the casino owners discover Rex has been cheating at the blackjack table. They settle for a time in San Francisco until the hotel they are living in catches fire. Jeannette begins to think that fire is a recurring part of her life. She wonders whether the hotel fire is related to the fires she set while playing with matches or the fire that burned her when she was cooking hot dogs. After San Francisco the Walls live in a place called Midland which they discover after Rose Mary demands that they stop in the area so she can paint a Joshua tree that has grown sideways, in the direction of the wind that constantly blew against it. In Midland the family dog, Juju, dies after being bitten by a rattlesnake, which makes Brian cry for the first time Jeannette can remember. Rex is employed as a gypsum miner and Rose Mary delves into her artwork. She discovers that she is pregnant and hopes for a boy so Brian will have a playmate.
That Christmas, the family has no money because Rex is fired from his mining job after arguing with the foreman. Instead of getting the children toys which he cannot afford, Rex takes them out to the desert and tells each of them to pick out a star. Lori chooses Betelgeuse, Brian, Rigel, and Jeannette chooses a planet, Venus. The children are pleased to have gotten stars instead of toys and they feel proud not to have been deceived by the myth of Santa Claus like the other kids.
Rex and Rose Mary get into a heated argument while the family is moving from Midland to Blythe. Rex, who had drank some Tequila earlier in the day, is frustrated by Rose Mary’s insistence that she carried Lori in her womb for 14 months. He tells her that she simply lost count of the months. Offended by Rex’s hostility, Rose Mary jumps out of the moving vehicle. Rex chases her in the car, cursing at her as he drives, and the children are afraid he is going to run her over. Eventually Rex corners Rose Mary by some rocks and tosses her back into the car. Though Rose Mary sobs for the remainder of the car ride, the next day the couple has made up.
In Blythe the family lives in the ‘LBJ Apartments’, which Jeannette believes stands for the ‘Lori, Brian, Jeannette Apartments’, with a large population of Spanish speaking migrant workers. Jeannette attends first grade and is such a good student that the other students begin calling her teacher’s pet. Four girls beat her up after school, giving her a busted lip and prompting Brian to begin watching out for his sister after school. Brian attempts to scare the girls away but both he and Jeannette are beaten up by them. Nevertheless, the pair is proud to have stood up to the bullies. In Blythe, Rose Mary gives birth to another girl who she names Lilly Ruth Maureen, after her mother Lilly and Rex’s mother, Erma Ruth.
A police car tries to pull over the family because the car’s brake lights aren’t working. Afraid that the police will discover that they have neither registration nor insurance and that the license plate was stolen from another vehicle, Rex outruns the police car and decides that the family must leave Blythe. They head for Battle Mountain, a place in Nevada where Rex claims there is gold to be found. The family must rent a U-Haul to travel the 14 hours to Battle Mountain and the children, including newborn Maureen, are forced to sit in the cold and dark storage area of the truck. During the ride the back doors swing open and the children must cling to the tied down furniture in order to stay in the U-Haul. A passing car signals to Rex that the door is open and when he pulls the truck over he is both angered at his children and scared by the thought of what could have happened to them.
When they arrive in Battle Mountain the family settles into a building that once served as a railroad depot. They use spools from the rail yard as tables and chairs and the children sleep in boxes. When they overhear their parents talking about buying beds for them they protest, claiming that sleeping in boxes makes sleep more adventurous. Rex begins works in a mine as an engineer and stops going out to drink after work. Instead, he and his family read works by Dickens, Faulkner, Pearl Buck and others, with a dictionary in the center of the room for looking up words the kids didn’t recognize. Jeannette begins second-grade at the Mary S. Black Elementary School and continues to perform well ahead of the rest of her classmates.
Jeannette begins a rock collection and she and Brian also begin playing in the dump. One day they try to make explosions out of some toxic wastes they find in the dump and they accidentally set a wooden shed aflame. Jeannette runs out but Brian insists that they put out the fire to avoid getting into trouble. Coincidentally, Rex is walking along the path beside the shed when Jeannette runs out looking for help. Rex pulls Brian out of the burning shed and soberly tells the children that they made a bad decision, getting too close to the boundary between turbulence and order, “a place where no rules apply”.
While at her friend Carla’s house Jeannette discovers that Carla does not have pests or animals in her home, but the Walls’ house is full of stray cats and dogs, lizards, snakes, and other animals. She asks Carla’s mother how they keep their house animal free and she says that she uses a No-Pest Strip to keep critters out. When Jeannette tells her mother this, Rose Mary refuses to buy one, declaring that anything that kills animals probably isn’t healthy for them either. That winter, Rex purchases a Ford Fairlane and takes the kids to swim in the Hot Pot, a sulfur spring composed of warm, smelly water and bordered by quicksand and mineral deposits. Rex forces Jeannette to learn how to swim in the Hot Pot by throwing her in and letting her sink before rescuing her and throwing her back in again. Though she learns how to swim, Jeannette is initially angered at her father for his tactics and at the rest of her family for allowing him to use them. Her anger subsides when her father tells her that she learned an important lesson in addition to learning how to swim: “you can’t cling to the side your whole life”.
After six-months living in Battle Mountain, Rex loses his job at the mine. He devotes his free time to perfecting the prospector and looking for gold. As a result, the family has very little to eat and the children are forced to scavenge food from neighbors. Jeannette sneaks food from her classmates’ lunch boxes at recess. Brian gets caught stealing a jar of pickles from a neighbor and is forced to eat the entire jar until he is sick. One evening, Rose Mary gets angry at Jeannette for eating the last stick of butter and when Jeannette defends her actions, saying that she was hungry, Rose Mary begins to cry and confesses that she doesn’t like living in poverty either. That night, Rex and Rose Mary get into a rowdy fight which draws the entire neighborhood out of their homes. Rex tells Rose Mary to ask her mother to invest money in the Prospector and demands that she get a job if she doesn’t like their lifestyle. The fight ends dramatically with Rose Mary hanging out of the upstairs window, Rex holding her from inside of the house. Rose Mary claims that Rex attempted to kill her but Rex swears he did no such thing. The next day Rose Mary applies for a teaching position at the Battle Mountain Intermediate School and is hired immediately.
Rose Mary begins teaching Lori’s class but she is criticized by the principal for allowing her class to descend into disorder and for not disciplining her students. Rose Mary does not like teaching because it was what her mother told her she would have to do if being an artist did not work out. Teaching, then, was a representation of Rose Mary’s failure as an artist, which made her unenthusiastic and unmotivated to do her job. Though they knew she did not enjoy it, the Walls children did their best to prevent their mother from getting fired. They woke her up in time for school, helped her to grade papers, and whenever the principal stopped by the classroom Rose Mary showed that she could discipline students by always yelling at Lori so she could spare the other children.
Though Rose Mary is the only one employed, Rex insists on maintaining control over the family’s finances. Despite Rose Mary’s efforts to save, every month he is able to get possession of her earnings. Rex is quick to spend the money on liquor or big meals at the Owl Club and Brian and Lori are frustrated by his wastefulness. Jeannette tries to defend her father to her siblings because she knows Rex considers her his favorite but Lori and Brian insist that their father needs to start contributing to the household instead of draining the money away. Brian stops waving to the women in the Green Lantern after his father takes him out one night with Ginger,a woman from the Green Lantern. It is Brian’s birthday and Rex buys him a Sad Sack comic book and takes him out to dinner with the woman, Ginger. When they go to the hotel Rex and the woman disappear for awhile while Brian sits outside reading his comic book over and over again. When the woman emerges from the bedroom, she appears interested in the comic book and Rex makes Brian give the comic to her. He forever resents Ginger and the woman of the Green Lantern. Jeannette suspects that Brian has discovered out what it is about the women in the Green Lantern that is so “bad," though she is still unsure what it is.
Soon after Jeannette turns eight, Billy Deel and his father move to Battle Mountain. Billy is eleven and had spent some time in a juvenile facility for shoplifting and vandalizing property. He is attracted to Jeannette and begins calling her his girlfriend. Jeannette agrees to be his friend but refuses to be his girlfriend. Billy gives Jeannette a turquoise ring which she accepts although she still refuses to be his girlfriend. Nevertheless, Billy brags to the other children that he and Jeannette are going to get married. One day, while Jeannette is playing hide and seek with the other children, Billy squeezes himself into her hiding spot, a small shed, and forces her to kiss him. He removes his pants and reaches for her shorts but luckily the other children hear the struggle and interrupt. Later, Jeannette returns the ring and tells Billy that she wants nothing to do with him. In retaliation, Billy shows up at the Walls’ house one night and shoots into the room with a BB gun. Because neither of their parents are home, Lori is in charge. She decides to retrieve her father’s gun and she shoots at Billy once to get him to leave them alone. Jeannette seizes the gun and shoots at Billy again until he runs away. When their parents return they are accompanied by a police officer who tells the family that they must report to court the following morning to see the magistrate. That night the Walls “skedaddle” once again and leave for Phoenix. Each of the children is only allowed to bring one thing and Jeannette is upset to leave Battle Mountain, which had become like a home for her.
Jeannette asks if they will stay with Grandma Smith again, who lives in Phoenix. Rose Mary curtly answers that they will not because Grandma died of Leukemia. Jeannette is shocked to hear the news and angered that her mother hadn’t mentioned it beforehand. She begins to punch her mother’s shoulder until her father pulls her hand away. Rose Mary says that they will live in one of the houses that Grandma Smith bequeathed to her in her death, an adobe house near Phoenix’s business district. There, Rose Mary will be able to begin an art studio and purchase supplies with her inheritance money.
The house that Rose Mary inherits from her mother on North Third Street is very large. It consists of fourteen rooms, a piano, a set of china, and a front and back yard. Instead of sending her children to the neighborhood Catholic school, Rose Mary arranges for them to attend the out of district public school, Emerson. There, all of the Walls children are placed into gifted reading groups. The school nurse notifies the Walls that Lori needs glasses. Begrudgingly Rose Mary allows her daughter to wear the glasses, which are provided by the school, although she considers them a “crutch”. With the glasses Lori is able to see the world anew. She is moved to tears at the sight of all the details in the world that had hitherto appeared as blurs to her. After receiving her new sight, Lori decides that she will become an artist like her mother. In Phoenix Rex gets a job as an electrician and joins the union. The influx of money brings new amenities to the Walls home including bicycles for the children, telephones, a washing machine, and a record player. When roaches and termites begin to crop up in the home, Rose Mary and Rex refuse to use more conventional means of exterminating the creatures. Instead the family attacks the roaches using rolled up newspapers and Rex fills the termite created holes with empty beer cans.
Rex is fired three times before he is kicked out of the electrician's union. The inheritance money has run out and, once again, food is in short supply for the Walls family. Brian and Jeannette discover a warehouse dumpster full of chocolates which they eat whenever there is no food in the house. Rose Mary recruits the children for a shoplifting scheme to get Maureen new clothes for preschool and Rex discovers a sly way to withdraw twice as much money from the bank by making withdrawals from the teller and drive-thru window simultaneously. After losing his job Rex begins to drink heavily and he frequently returns home violent and angry, smashing dishes and trashing the house. Rose Mary hides from him during these episodes while the children try to calm him down. She also refuses to allow Jeannette to clean up the messes, claiming that Rex needs to see the consequences of his actions. That Christmas, Rose Mary is determined to have a traditional Catholic Christmas and takes the family to mass. Rex, who has been drinking since breakfast, has an outburst at Midnight Mass and the entire family is escorted out of the church. When they return home, Rex lights the thrift store Christmas tree on fire, destroying the tree and the ornaments as well as the family’s hopes for a merry Christmas.
That spring, when Jeannette turns ten, Rex asks her what she wants for her birthday. Surprised, because birthdays are usually not celebrated and forgotten in their family, Jeannette tells her father that she wants him to stop drinking. For days Rex, lies in bed strapped to the bed posts in agony in withdrawal from alcohol. That summer, as he regains his strength, he proposes that the family take a trip to the Grand Canyon. However, on their way the car breaks down after Rex exhausts the engine trying to see how fast the car can go. The family is forced to walk home until a woman picks them up and takes them back to Phoenix. On the night of their return, Rex does not come home.
Rex does not return for another three days and when he does he is drunk and angry, shouting and cursing. He gets into a violent fight with Rose Mary . Though both of them draw knives, after Rex asks if Rose Mary loves him and she answers affirmatively, they collapse into each other’s arms laughing and hugging. Rose Mary decides that the family should move to West Virginia where Rex’s parents might be able to help curb his drinking habit and help the family financially. She sells some of her inherited land in Texas and buys an Oldsmobile for $200 to replace the car that broke down during their trip to the Grand Canyon. Though he is not excited about the move, Rex begrudgingly gets into the car and demands that he be permitted to drive.
This section begins with the most vivid of Jeannette’s early memories: the day she is set on fire at age three. The incident illustrates a few main themes of the novel. Firstly, the presence of fire is introduced in this scene. Initially, it is something that has the potential to nourish (it allows Jeannette to cook her hot dogs) but instead causes great damage to the young Jeannette’s body. Secondly, the nature of the Walls’ parenting becomes clear. This is a home in which three year olds are permitted to cook on the stove, in which injured youth are broken out of the hospital before the doctor clears her dismissal.
This initial clash of the Walls family with the order and cleanliness of the hospital is a telling contrast. While there, the Walls determine that they should have taken Jeannette to an Indian witch doctor instead, anywhere but the sterile and orderly hospital. Positioning the hospital as a symbol of cultural order and privilege, Jeannette shows how her parents taught their children to avoid conformity and to disdain the unnecessary frills in life. Further, the hospital illustrates the Walls’ apprehensions about their children realizing that they have few means in life compared to others in society. Mr. and Mrs. Walls do not want Jeannette to receive gum from the hospital staff not because it is unhealthy for her but rather because she will know what she is missing when there is no gum regularly available to her outside the hospital.
This entrée into Jeannette’s early childhood also introduces another common theme of the work: movement and mobility. The family frequently moves around to avoid paying bills or having property repossessed. Young Jeannettte learns to think of the moves as adventures when she is told by her father that they are being chased by the FBI. Though her experiences as a young child are not ideal, in a sense her conception of what was going on at the time is idealized. This contrasts with the viewpoints of Brad and Lori, Jeannette’s two siblings, who seem frustrated and unenthused about the ‘adventure’ of moving frequently.
Character development of Jeannette’s parents, Rex and Rose Mary, introduces some other major themes of the work. Rex, who always promises his family things but seldom delivers on them, is both an antagonist and a protagonist. He is a sympathetic character despite his flaws because of his charm and youthfulness. Rose Mary however is less sympathetic because she seems so self-centered. Determined to be an artist, Rose Mary declines other paying jobs even when her family needs the money for survival. Rose Mary’s character also introduces larger concerns about occupations. She does not want to be a teacher or have a “real” job but rather delights in the creativity and spontaneity of being an artist.
By the section’s end some of Jeannette’s naiveté has faded. Having grown up in many different places, Jeannette is able to distinguish between the ‘good’ times and the ‘bad’. She knows all families do not function as hers does. Jeannette also begins to see the harm in her father’s drinking habits. When Jeannette celebrates a birthday at the end of the section, she asks her father to stop drinking. Rex tries to wean himself off the alcohol but is ultimately unsuccessful. This failure prompts the family’s move back to Rex’s hometown in Welch, West Virginia.