The Glass Castle details the story of Jeannette Walls and her family. Constantly short on cash and food, the family moves around the country frequently and tries to re-settle. Though the family is dysfunctional, the memoir communicates itself without condemning either of the Walls parents. Humor frequently imbues the work with a light-spirited tone.
For the first half of the work, the family lives in various mining towns on the West Coast of America. This part of the work is characterized by frequent moves from town to town. As Jeannette grows up in the desert she is enchanted by the limitless bounds of nature and the fantasies her father dreams up for her and her siblings. While living in the desert Jeannette begins a rock collection and explores the natural and man-made features of the environment with her brother Brian. Life in the desert ends when Rex's alcoholism worsens and the family runs out of funds. They leave the desert and relocate to Welch, West Virginia, the town where Rex grew up, to find better prospects.
Life in Welch, West Virginia is completely different than the life the Walls led in the desert on the West coast. Most notably, Welch has a winter season which brings new challenges to the Walls family. From their arrival, the Wells children are itching to leave Welch and return to the desert. But eventually circumstances become so bad that they realize they must move away from their parents in order to achieve stable lives. Lori and Jeannette set their sights on New York and begin saving money to move out of Welch once and for all.
Eventually the siblings all end up relocating from Welch to New York in an attempt to be liberated from the stifling environment in Welch. For a time everyone is settled and living independently until Rex and Rose Mary show up in Manhattan in a van. After just a short while, the couple ends up poor and homeless once again and despite their efforts, the children are unable to take on the burden of hosting their parents anymore. Consequently, Rose Mary and Rex become squatters in abandoned apartments until Rex dies after having a heart attack.
By the memoir's end, Jeannette has finally reconciled her past and present and no longer feels the need to hide behind lies or half-truths. The memoir liberates her and allows her to do what she enjoys most about writing; communicate with the world.