The family soon realizes that the “Piggy Bank Special,” an Oldsmobile, is not even worth the two hundred dollars paid for it. It breaks down several times, and never can get above twenty miles an hour.
The fate of the Walls family’s cars seems to echo their own luck or lack thereof—as we’ve seen, Jeannette structures the family’s moves around them.
They sleep in the car every night for the month it takes to cross the country, and one morning wake up to Oklahomans laughing at them. Jeannette hides under a blanket and refuses to come out, leading Mom to admonish her to enjoy life’s comedies a bit more.
Once again, Mom’s “adventures,” though they can seem exciting in and of themselves, become depressing to Jeannette when exposed and compared to others’ situations.
By late November, they reach West Virginia, where Jeannette notices that the air feels heavier and darker. They arrive in Welch, a valley flanked by wooden and brick buildings perched precariously on the hills.
Jeannette’s first impression—the heavy, dark air—will foreshadow her conception of Welch itself, especially compared to the fresh air of the desert.
They arrive at a large but battered house and are welcomed by a pale, obese woman with a cigarette in her mouth—she is Dad’s mother. Jeannette calls her Grandma but she snaps at her to call her Erma.
From her home to her personality and body, Erma could not differ more from Grandma Smith, whom Jeannette so adored.
Next to Erma a fragile-looking man with white hair, Ted, tells Jeannette it’s fine if she calls him Grandpa. Redheaded Uncle Stanley, smelling like whiskey, hugs and kisses the kids over and over again. Jeannette wonders if this is one of Dad’s pranks, and the real family is somewhere else, but Dad isn’t smiling and looks uncomfortable.
Jeannette cannot see any resemblance between Dad and his family. But their relationship, it will turn out, is far more complex than strict resemblance, as Dad’s initial discomfort suggests.
The family eats overcooked, salty beans together and descends to the basement, a large room with one bed, a pullout couch, and a coal stove. All the kids climb into bed, tickling and teasing each other until hearing a “thump” from upstairs. Mom goes up to investigate: Erma says they’re making too much noise.
Again, Erma’s welcome differs wildly from Jeannette’s memories of her time with Grandma Smith. The family connection, here, seems to mean little more than a boarding-house agreement.
Jeannette doubts that Erma likes them, but Mom says that she’s had a difficult life, and that they’ll adapt.
Mom, as usual, sees the victim in people, as well as how their past affects their present.
The next day, Jeannette sees Uncle Stanley listening to the radio, on which they hear someone speaking in tongues, and then a preacher speaking in a “hillbilly” accent asking for donations. Dad claims this is what turned him into an atheist.
Another example of how people’s characters are shaped by their family histories, even if that includes rebelling against what the family history means.
Mom and Dad take the kids for a tour and tell them about Welch’s history. Unfit for agriculture, it was only developed in the early 20th century, as robber barons brought in laborers to work the coal mines.
Welch’s coal mines—dank, sooty, and dangerous—will come to epitomize the way Jeannette feels about their life in Welch.
There’s a river named the Tug, but Dad says that they can’t go fishing or swimming, since the Tug serves as the catch-all for the town’s sewage system—there’s even toilet paper in the branches at the banks.
Any thoughts Jeannette and her siblings might have of replicating their adventures in the desert wildlife must be shelved.
The main road has a grand courthouse and a bank with arched windows, but by this point it’s run-down. Dad says it’s been this way since the fifties, when JFK came to Welch to hand out the first food stamps and prove abject poverty did exist in America.
Welch’s poverty is striking even in comparison to the Walls family’s earlier abodes. It also fits into a broader story of the decline of industry in 20th-century America.
Mom agrees that things have grown shabbier since she was last in Welch after she and Dad were first married, but cheers up when she realizes there probably aren’t any other artists to compete with her.
Mom’s incurable optimism once again, is here combined with her equally persistent, though never fully pursued, dream of becoming an artist.
The next day the kids go to Welch Elementary, where Mom tries to convince the principal that the kids are gifted. The principal asks Jeannette eight times seven in such a thick accent that she doesn’t understand—and he can’t understand her answers. He decides the children have learning disabilities and places them in a classroom for slower children.
This inauspicious start establishes Welch as backward and closed-minded, and contrasts with Phoenix, where the kids’ advanced reading abilities were immediately recognized. Mom’s typically spontaneous decision to move without getting the kids’ school records is also at fault here.
Jeannette arrives for her first day in an old coat with the buttons torn off, and the other kids whisper about her at recess. Her classes are filled with rote memorization of West Virginia’s counties and videos of the high school’s football games.
These examples are meant to show not just the abysmal academics but also the close-minded attitude of Welch’s inhabitants. Yet even in Welch the Walls are considered poor, as the teasing Jeannette for her clothes shows.
In English, Jeannette’s teacher goads the students into making fun of Jeannette for thinking she’s too special to bring in school records. The class laughs at her, and a tall black girl with almond eyes jabs a pencil into her back.
Again, Jeannette’s new school is shown to be close-minded and suspicious of outsiders. The teacher’s cruelty is astonishing, a sign that it’s not just non-conformist adults who abdicate their responsibilities to children.
Jeannette lingers in the cafeteria, eating alone, until the janitor nudges her outside to recess. The tall black girl from class, along with two of her friends, make fun of her for having no buttons on her coat, and start kicking and shoving her, which she takes without fighting back.
Jeannette acts noticeably less curious and more resigned compared to the first days of her previous moves, possibly because she’s older and finds starting over more exhausting and less exhausting.
At home, Jeannette deflects Mom and Dad’s questions about school rather than face Mom’s optimistic responses to whatever she tells them. Dinitia Hewitt, the leader from the first day, and her sidekicks gang up on Jeannette every day after lunch and call her poor, ugly, and dirty—none of which Jeannette can really refute.
Unable to reconcile the way Mom and Dad have painted their life—as thrilling, spontaneous, and rebellious—and the bleak way it is portrayed by these girls, Jeannette simply stays silent.
Jeannette finally tells Mom only that girls are making fun of her for being poor, and Mom says to tell them that Abraham Lincoln was from a poor family and that Martin Luther King would be ashamed. She tried these tactics, but the girls laugh and just continue.
Even if intellectually Jeannette might know this tactic is futile, she still trusts her parents as parents, looks up to them, and values their opinions enough to try them out.
A month into school, Jeannette is wandering in a park and sees a wild dog approaching a small black child, who seems about to run. She yells at him not to, but he dashes towards the trees. Jeannette can tell that this dog might be wild but is more scary than truly evil, and she scares him away by raising a stick at him.
Jeannette’s scrappy childhood has given her peculiar but often useful knowledge. In this case, she knows how to read wild dogs’ moods and employs this knowledge to help out another.
Jeannette carries the boy piggyback to a neighborhood with brightly painted houses. She drops him off at a neat but small house and, turning around, sees Dinitia looking at her from across the street.
Note that Jeannette thinks nothing of carrying a black boy back to his neighborhood. As we will see, this attitude is far from common in Welch.
The next day, Dinitia stops bullying Jeanette, and the others soon lose interest. Though she never apologizes, Dinitia does ask Jeannette for homework help. She goes to Dinitia’s house that Saturday—or to “Niggerville,” as Uncle Stanley calls it.
Jeannette’s actions have made Dinitia reconsider her. Uncle Stanley, meanwhile, epitomizes the uglier side of racism in Welch.
That afternoon, Erma asks how “Niggerville” went. She blames blacks for Welch’s deterioration, and says they are the reason she refuses to leave the house.
Again, a common story in American history, as black residents bore much of the blame for things “going downhill.”
Jeannette tells her not to use that word, and that Mom says black people are just like us. Erma curses at Jeannette and sends her down to the basement without dinner.
Mom’s admittedly odd ethical code nevertheless places respect for other human beings at the top—a belief that Jeannette can easily accept.
Lori congratulates Jeannette on standing up to Erma, but Mom says that they have to remember to be polite while they’re Erma’s guests—confusing Jeannette, who hasn’t heard Mom talk that way before.
Mom’s iron convictions seem to wobble, and the reader (though perhaps not Jeannette) understands that the family’s dependence on Erma letting them stay in her home must play a part. This is the sort of dependence Mom never wanted to have, but which desperation has pushed her and her family into.
Mom says Erma’s parents died when she was young and she bounced around between relatives, essentially as a servant. She says everyone has one good thing in them. When Jeannette asks if that applies to Hitler, Mom immediately responds that he loved dogs.
Once again Mom’s optimism is here on display. Yet here that optimism seems close to insane. Is this “good” trait of Hitler’s at all meaningful. Is the insistence on Hitler having a good trait optimistic or delusional?
That winter, Mom and Dad decide to drive back to Phoenix to pick up the bikes, school records, and other things left in the house. Mom leaves Lori in charge and tells the kids to listen to Erma.
Once Mom and Dad go back for the rest of their belongings, it becomes clear that Welch is not just another stop on the road, but a longer-term stay.
Jeannette envies Mom and Dad for returning to Phoenix, where she remembers riding her bike, eating free bananas, and studying at a place where the teachers considered her smart.
Jeannette’s nostalgia for Phoenix is intertwined with her understanding of home as defined by these certain possessions and experiences.
Brian and Jeannette wonder aloud if Mom and Dad will return. The kids know that they are more inconvenient to their parents now that they’re older and can no longer sleep in cardboard boxes or cling to the sides of U-Haul trucks.
Both Brian and Jeannette have begun to realize that their childhood “adventures” were in part simply a result of being little kids, who were both easy to tote along and naïve.
A week later, the kids are all watching TV in the living room when Erma tells Brian to follow her into Grandpa’s bedroom, where she can sew up his shorts while he’s still wearing them. Jeannette follows them into the bedroom and sees Erma squeezing at Brian’s crotch while he cries and resists.
Part of being left alone as a child, the reader comes to realize through various examples, is being left to fend for oneself against the unsettling or even criminal desires of adults. Nearly all of the adults in the book betray children in some way.
Jeannette yells at Erma to stop and calls her a pervert. Lori runs in and tells everyone to calm down, but Erma slaps her and the two get into a fight.
Lori has taken on her role after being left in charge by Mom and Dad, which she handles as Dad would—by fighting.
Erma sends the kids down to stay in the basement, where they can’t use the bathroom and can eat only the beans Uncle Stanley sneaks down to them.
Once again the children’s parents have left them alone, and now to the harsh punishment of another family member who should be protecting them.
A week later, a foot of snow falls on Welch. Since Erma won’t give the kids any coal to burn, they all climb into bed every day after school to do their homework together and keep warm.
A major difference between being poor in the American Southwest and in Welch is, the kids realize, merely the difficulty of keeping warm.
The night Mom and Dad come back, the kids hear the door open upstairs and Erma begin to complain about all the trouble they’ve caused. Dad heads downstairs to yell at them for not being proper guests. Jeannette thinks he’ll understand when she explains, but Dad only says that Brian can take anything, as a man.
Again, Mom and Dad are caught between a desire to defend their kids, and their reliance on Erma. Jeannette, as usual, is overly confident regarding Dad, but his dismissal, formulated in terms of self-sufficiency, is all the same shocking.
Afterwards, Jeannette and her siblings wonder why Dad was acting so strange. Jeannette asks aloud if Erma might ever have acted towards Dad as she did with Brian—it would explain a lot, she thinks. But Lori tells her not to think about it, or she’ll go crazy.
Jeannette and her siblings begin to piece together how certain traits and actions can have a profound base in the past—though this kind of reflection on one’s own father may well turn one “crazy.”
Mom and Dad tell the kids that they arrived in Phoenix to find the house looted, with everything gone. They took a few things back, but the Oldsmobile finally died in Nashville, and they abandoned it.
This anecdote underlines the ambiguous relationship of the Walls family towards material possessions, between covetous and casual.
Erma claims she can never forgive the kids and they can no longer stay with her. The family can’t afford a rental in Welch proper, but Mom and Dad find a place over one of the mountains and up a one-lane road called Little Hobart Street. The houses here are shabbier than the ones in the valley, but their new home is the shabbiest of all: gray and drab, it juts out from the hillside, perched on rickety cinder-block pillars.
All their tip-toeing around Erma has come to naught, and though getting support from Dad’s family was the main reason for their move, Mom no longer seem to have the energy o skip town now those bonds have been broken. Jeannette describes the new house as bleak and grim, a physical description that fits well with her emotional views on Welch.
The house has three small rooms and no indoor plumbing—the family doesn’t have money for electricity either. But Mom concentrates on the beauty of the cast-iron coal stove—even though there’s no chimney and the ceiling is coated with soot.
The cast-iron stove exemplifies both Mom’s tendency to find the best in any situation, and her (as well as Jeannette’s) complex attraction towards certain objects. At the same time, the chimney-less stove is ridiculous, and using it is likely to be dangerous.
Dad, for his part, says that this is just a temporary solution, providing a plot of land to build the Glass Castle. It’ll take him a little while to adapt the solar cells, given that where the house is located, barely any sun will reach it.
While Mom concentrates on the positive in what’s available, Dad constructs an entirely alternate set of possibilities, he continues to dream.
The family moves that day. One room becomes the master bedroom, living room, and artist studio, while another is the kids’ room with homemade plywood bunk beds, and the third the kitchen. The kitchen has gnarled electric wires everywhere. Whenever they can afford electricity, which is rarely, anyone who touches a surface in that room gets a severe electric shock.
The house is not just awful. It’s dangerous. They are living in a place that physically harms them.
Still committed to the adventure of it, Mom tries to teach Lori and Jeannette how to use the house’s sewing machine to make dresses, though they turn out baggy and unfitted; she also covers the house’s walls with her paintings until there are several layers of the paintings, which she rotates every so often.
The baggy dresses are an apt symbol of the more pathetic side of Mom’s grand ideas. Meanwhile, her layers of paintings suggest a troubling emphasis on accumulating possessions, something we’ll see more of as time goes on.
One day Jeannette asks Dad if they are ever going home—when he asks “Home?” she responds, “Phoenix.” Dad replies that this is home now.
Jeannette’s understanding of home is tied to Phoenix because she felt (relatively) safe and accepted there. But her parent’s choices have taken that home away from her, and she as child is still subject to her parents.
Jeannette and Brian decide to embrace this new home by beginning to dig the foundation for the Glass Castle during all their free time. After a month, the foundation is deeper than they are tall.
Though Jeannette and Brian have grown older and savvier, they haven’t yet let go of the best of Dad’s yarns and promises. If this is home, they are going to make it the home they’ve dreamed of.
One day, Dad tells Jeannette and Brian to dump the house’s garbage in the pit, since they haven’t been able to pay the trash collection fee. He says it’s a temporary measure until he can hire a truck to move it. But he never does, and the foundation begins to fill up with trash.
Typically, Dad’s decisions like these are veiled in excuses and elaborate justifications. This time, though, the imagery is potent enough to work against him. The dream itself is filled up with trash—it’s become worthless. This is a critical moment in Jeanette’s growing up, as one of her central idealizations of her father is destroyed.
The garbage also attracts rats, one of whom Jeannette discovers “bathing” in the sugar bowl. When Brian throws a skillet at the rat, it hisses at them and they run away. That night Maureen is too afraid to sleep, and to reassure her that she is “surrendering to fear,” Jeannette turns on the light—only to find the rat on her blanket.
Jeannette’s language—surrendering to fear—mimics that of her parents’ when they told her (insanely) not to be scared of potential child molesters. Here that advice is again shown to be insufficient—sometimes a situation can be so bad that not giving into fear isn’t going to do anything to stop the reality of a rat infestation.
Their dog, Tinkle (a stray that had followed Brian home) catches the rat and kills it. Mom says she’s sorry for the dead rat and names it Rufus, while Brian hangs it from a tree by the house to scare off other rats. Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Freeman, mistaking the hanging dead rat for a possum, shoots at it and blows it away.
Mom’s attitude towards the rat is on the one hand slightly endearing and on the other horrifying and over the line. To align oneself with the victimhood of a dead rat that was threatening your children seems like a delusional extension of concern for the weak. The house on the hill in Welch has very thin boundaries between the human and animal.
Jeannette, Brian, and Lori begin to sleep with makeshift weapons by their heads, while Maureen spends nights at other friends’ houses.
As with Dad’s drinking, each kid deals with the family’s situation in his or her own way.
Mom doesn’t seem worried about what the neighbors will think about the garbage or cleanliness, but Jeannette tries to think up ways to improve the house, like painting it yellow with paint Dad brought home from an odd job.
Mom’s emphasis on non-conformity remains constant even with extremes like enormous rats, while Jeannette is more concerned with other people’s opinions.
The rest of the family is unenthusiastic about this idea, so Jeannette embarks alone, until she has completed all the sections of the house that she can reach without a ladder. She spends a few days trying to build one, but by that time the paint freezes and then melts into lumpy, runny liquid. Now the house is even worse—a “patch job,” a job left half done.
Jeannette’s tenaciousness makes clear that her desire to improve the house is not only based on what others think—she truly believes a beautiful home will make for a better home. The half-painted house is a sobering symbol of Jeannette’s inability to create such a thing given the situation in which she has been placed by her parents, and is another step in her journey to realizing that to get what she wants she will have to “escape” her parents.
Jeannette’s family is the poorest on Little Hobart Street, but Mom and Dad never accept welfare, food stamps, or church drive clothes, saying they can take care of their own family.
While Mom and Dad’s belief in living outside the system is extreme, they continue to insist on self-sufficiency. On the one hand, this might be seen as kind of noble or at least principled. On the other hand, these principles are endangering their children.
Jeannette is friendly with the oldest of the six Hall children who live nearby: 42-year-old Kenny, who, like all of his siblings, is mentally challenged and lives at home. The other kids tease Kenny about having a crush on Jeannette, and she has to let him down by explaining she doesn’t date older men.
Unlike Lori, Jeannette dislikes confrontation—as with Billy, she prefers to feign liking someone and tell white lies rather than risk causing him pain.
Mom and Dad always tell the kids they don’t have it as bad as some—for instance the Pastors, the nine children of the town whore, Ginnie Sue Pastor. Ginnie Sue spends her time working like any mom and dresses like any mom instead of lounging around like the women at the Green Lantern.
While the ladies at the Green Lantern seemed to have chosen their job, there is a greater desperation evident in Ginnie Sue, who must resort to prostitution in order to feed her large family.
The oldest Pastor daughter, Kathy, wants to be Jeannette’s friend, and invites her over so that she can tell Ginnie Sue about her family’s time in California. Jeannette agrees since she’s curious about what it’s like to be a prostitute (she’s figured out what happens at the Green Lantern). She thinks up questions to ask Ginnie Sue.
Despite Jeannette’s own unconventional childhood, she is intrigued by even another, unknown way of scraping by. Her curiosity is a natural part of growing up, though possibly surprising given her own unpleasant experiences with sex.
When she visits, Ginnie Sue asks Jeannette to help her pick apart a chicken, and Ginnie Sue and Kathy marvel at Jeannette’s thoroughness.
With, often, little to eat, Jeannette has become an expert at making the most of what is available.
Jeannette tells the two of them about California and Las Vegas, exaggerating her proximity to showgirls, casinos, and air-conditioned hotels and restaurants.
Just as Mom paves the way for a move by calling it an adventure, Jeannette rewrites the past in the same way. Yet Jeanette’s lies also make clear how her own parent’s
On her way home, Jeannette realizes she hadn’t asked any of her questions—she had even forgotten Ginnie Sue was a prostitute. Thinking about it, she decides that prostitution does at least put food on the table, she decides.
This realization is humanizing, as she learns to see people not just as a social category. Further, that she sees practicality in Ginnie Sue’s desperate turn to prostitution to feed her children again challenges the non-conformist impracticality of her parents who insist on self-sufficiency but barely put food on the table at all.
Fighting is common in Welch, perhaps because of the poverty or lack of activities. The Wall kids join in, usually fighting as a team. Their proudest victory is the “Battle of Little Hobart Street,” against Ernie Goad. It starts when Ernie begins throwing rocks at Jeannette and Brian for “stinking up” the town. He yells that they’re garbage—they even live in it. Jeannette has to admit it’s true.
The Walls children tend to adapt to the social rules and customs of wherever they find themselves, just as they adopt a new physical home. Their parents do nothing to intervene. Not only has the foundation pit ruined Jeannette’s dreams for a Glass Castle, but the illusion has now been fully dismantled, and Jeanette now admits fully to the reality of her situation.
One weekend, Ernie throws a rock through the window and yells that they’re garbage before running away. Brian cooks up a plan to make a catapult with a mattress and ropes like the medieval ones in their library books —enough to kill Ernie and his friends, they think. When Ernie’s gang returns, Brian gives the signal and he and Jeannette catapult the mattress lined with rocks into the air, hurling them into the group of kids and chasing them away screaming.
Once again, without the watching eyes of parents (always absent from these scenes), childhood fights take on very adult stakes. The kids’ autodidact education also comes in handy here. The battle may not have killed the enemy, but Jeannette and Brian can still claim victory. Note that Lori, now getting older, is increasingly absent from these scenes.
As winter turns to spring, life in Welch becomes slightly more manageable. Longer days mean more light to read by, for instance.
For Mom and Dad, self-sufficiency works best when nature does its part to facilitate it.
Mom reads in bed and apologizes for not being productive by saying that reading is one of her own addictions.
The kids are well acquainted with the phenomenon of addiction from Dad, and Mom takes advantage of this to justify her own lack of productivity.
Lori is the family’s biggest reader, and enjoys fantasy and science fiction. Jeannette prefers books about the hardships of this world rather than another: her favorites are The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The last encourages her to believe in her father like that book’s protagonist believed in hers, despite his drinking.
Possessions like books can tell much about a person’s character, hopes, and dreams. Their choices suggest that Lori, already, is seeking to escape from the family’s life in Welch, while Jeannette prefers to look for redemption within their difficult situation.
One night Dad comes home with deep, bloody cuts on his head and arm. Mom is asleep and Dad asks Jeannette to sew up his arm. She feels like she’s sewing meat, and tells him she can’t do it. Dad guides her fingers until they’ve completed a few stitches, and Dad tells Jeannette he’s proud of her. That evening, when Jeannette returns home, he’s left again—increasingly a common event.
Just as when Dad threw Jeannette into the hot spring, he seems simply incapable of thinking that Jeannette might not be able to live up to his expectations for her. And as before, Jeannette suffers but ultimately comes through. The cuts and absences also suggest that Dad’s drinking is taking a turn for the worse.
Though Dad can usually get odd jobs, he prefers to search for a way to hit a windfall, by figuring out how to burn coal more efficiently, for instance. Jeannette tries to be supportive but finds it increasingly difficult to believe in him.
Odd jobs and a windfall are some of the only options for someone who refuses to work within available authorities and institutions. Jeannette’s lack of belief attests to her growing up.
Sometimes, Mom receives checks from the drilling company on her land in Texas, though she is always vague about this. She refuses to sell the land, as it’s part of her family—every few months, though, she receives a check and they eat well for days.
Though the family could certainly use the money Mom would get from selling this land, she is sentimentally attached to it just as Jeannette is to her rock collection.
At school, Jeannette hides in the bathroom during lunch so that the other kids don’t make fun of her for “forgetting” to bring her lunch, and later picks through the garbage for the uneaten food the other kids throw out.
As a child, Jeanette thought her life was exciting and free. As a young adult, she begins to feel the shame of her poverty. Her “self-sufficiency” in finding food in the trash is forced upon her by her parent’s neglect.
Maureen is the only sibling to have a stable food source, since she rotates among her friends’ houses for dinner. But Jeannette notices Mom is getting heavier, and one day Brian finds her eating a giant Hershey bar under the covers. Mom starts crying and calling herself a sugar addict, and says they should forgive her like they forgive Dad for his addiction. Without saying anything, Brian breaks the bar into four pieces and the kids gobble them up.
One result of Mom and Dad’s creed of self-sufficiency is that the Walls family members each have varying levels of access to food. But what could be called self-sufficiency looks more like lack of responsibility from a mother, especially as she cries and looks for excuses. The kids’ silence confirms that they won’t accept those excuses.
As winter arrives in Welch, Jeannette begins to feel ill. She wears only a thin wool coat, and the family can’t afford coal for heating. She and Brian occasionally collect coal pieces that have fallen off trucks, but usually concentrate on finding dry wood. Mom claims that life is easier for them than it was for the pioneers who lacked all modern conveniences.
While the Walls parents can preach self-sufficiency and refuse charity from other people, they can’t generate their own heat. They can’t be self-sufficient in the face of the weather. Mom tries to ease these difficulties with optimistic platitudes. Her children seek pragmatic solutions.
When it gets warmer and the snow starts to melt, it becomes difficult to find dry wood. One day Lori uses kerosene as an aid (against Dad’s wishes, since he says it’s dangerous and unnatural) and it explodes, singeing her thighs so that she can’t sleep under blankets—though it’s too cold to do without them.
Dad does tend to be savvy about scientific matters, but with him gone the kids have grown desperate to do whatever it takes to keep warm. Fire, again, is both a potent protector and a threat when unleashed.
One day Jeannette goes to her friend Carrie Mae’s house to work on a school project. When Carrie Mae’s dad shows Jeannette how their thermostat works; she first thinks he’s joking. For several nights after that she dreams that her family has a furnace that can be turned on with a lever just like her friend’s.
Jeannette is increasingly drawn not just to shiny, beautiful things but to material objects that can have a concrete effect on her family’s standard of living.
At the end of their second Welch winter, Erma dies. She had long prepared for her funeral and leaves detailed, intricate instructions. Jeannette is surprised at how upset Dad seems—she’d assumed he’d feel relieved.
Jeannette knows the tight hold Erma has retained over Dad, but there are complexities in his relationship with her that she still hasn’t quite grasped.
When Mom asks if the kids have something nice to say about Erma, Lori responds, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” The others start laughing, but Dad looks furious and yells at the kids, saying that he is ashamed of them.
Even at Erma’s death, the long-simmering tension between the kids and the parents regarding how to treat Erma rises once again to the surface.
Four days later Mom sends Jeannette to find Dad, who still hasn’t come home. She moves from bar to bar and finally finds him at the dark, grimy Howdy House with the other regulars.
Despite her growing disillusionment with Dad, Jeannette is still considered his “favorite” and chosen as the one most likely to make him return.
Dad orders Jeannette Cokes as he continues drinking whiskey, until he is stumbling so much that a man offers to drive them home. When she tells the man she wants to be either a veterinarian or a geologist, he tells her she has “big plans” for being the daughter of a drunk. He means it as a compliment, he says, but Jeannette refuses to say another word.
Jeannette partly succeeds in fulfilling the vast responsibility Mom has placed on her—she’s found Dad—but is powerless to stop his drinking. The man’s comment is hurtful both for his designation of Dad as a drunk, and his inability to see Jeannette in any other way.
Not long after Erma’s death, Uncle Stanley falls asleep while smoking a cigarette in the basement, and a fire breaks out. Though he and Grandpa escape, the house burns down. They move into an apartment with a working bathroom, giving the kids a chance to take a weekly bath.
Like Mom and Dad, Uncle Stanley seems not to treat his home with much care, making accidents that much more likely. His mistake, though, is a windfall for the Walls kids who can now finally keep clean.
One time, when Jeannette goes over to take a bath, she feels Uncle Stanley’s hand easing its way onto her thigh as he touches himself. She tells Mom on him, but Mom says he’s just lonely, and that sexual assault is a “crime of perception.” Jeannette, however, refuses to go back even to take a bath.
Unfortunately, Jeannette is now used to this kind of sexual harassment. Though Mom is often so forward-thinking, here her non-conformist thinking aligns with prejudice against the reality of sexual assault.
That spring, heavy rains flood the Tug river and spread mud into the houses; 126 people die from a landslide by a mine. According to Mom, this is nature’s revenge for man “pillaging” and building upon the land.
Nature is variously an aid and a threat to the family’s life on the margins. Mom, always with her own way of seeing things, mixes the ideas of Christianity and environmental justice.
The house is consistently damp, sprouting mold and mushrooms. Mom gets bruised by falling through a rotted step. She jokes that her husband doesn’t beat her—he just hasn’t fixed the stairs.
Dad used to wow the children with his plans to build the Glass Castle. Now he is absent while the house he does have—a wreck—falls even further apart.
One day, as Jeannette and Brian are exploring, they find a diamond ring, which Mom takes to be appraised. Though it turns out to be valuable, Mom decides to keep it to replace the one Dad had given her and then pawned. When Jeanette says that the ring could buy a lot of food, Mom responds that it can also bring “self-esteem,” which is more important.
Mom’s opinions on material possessions, like all of her opinions, are unconventional: she isn’t immune to pretty things, but she also links them to sentimental rather than material value. And she almost always puts her own individual needs—whatever she perceives them to be—above the needs of her children.
Mom does seem to toggle between dark moods, when she yells at the kids for preventing her from becoming an artist, and cheerful periods, like when she decides to clean the house. Instead of ridding it of the clutter, though—like Jeannette wants to do—they end up just organizing the clutter into piles.
Having to take responsibility for others, her kids, has never come easily or naturally to Mom. The cleaning episode again juxtaposes Jeannette’s desire for order with Mom’s fascination with objects others would consider trash.
Jeannette takes advantage of one cheerful moment to broach a grand plan to Mom: that Mom should leave Dad in order to be eligible for welfare. Mom is shocked that Jeannette, Dad’s last defender, would abandon him, and claims that going on welfare would be psychologically damaging. She also refuses to get a job with a salary, again calling herself an “excitement addict.”
By this point, the reader is far less shocked than Mom that Jeannette would “abandon” Dad. Instead of proposing alternatives, Mom refuses all the options Jeannette offers her, as if not choosing anything was not a choice of its own. As Dad has fallen into alcohol addiction, Mom seems to manufacture addictions for herself in order to justify her own refusal to take responsibility for her kids.
That summer, Dad still thinks of Jeannette as his biggest fan. One afternoon as they’re sitting on the porch he points down at the valley houses, the ones nearly swept away by flooding. He put lots of thought into their home, he tells her jokingly—real estate is all about location. They each start laughing uncontrollably and can’t get themselves to stop.
Though only implicitly and obliquely, Dad seems to admit that the house on Little Hobart Street hasn’t been the greatest home for the kids. But this scene gives us a glimpse into how the Wallses can also be a normal family, laughing and joking with each other. It is another glimpse into Dad’s charm.
To get away from the heat, Brian and Jeannette go to the public swimming pool, until the day Ernie Goad tells everyone that the Walls kids make the pool smell, since they live in garbage. The two quietly leave, with Ernie triumphant about his revenge.
That Brian and Jeannette quietly leave instead of fight reveals that they’ve had to accept, to a certain extent, their lower rung on the social ladder in Welch because of where they live.
Later that week Jeannette runs into Dinitia Hewitt, who invites her to go swimming with “us” in the morning. “Us” means black people, who only swim in the morning despite the lack of official segregation. Jeannette gets a few curious looks as she enters the locker room, but soon feels confident enough to joke with the other women there. She swims and plays in the water with Dinitia all morning, feeling cleaner than she has in ages.
Jeanette’s kindness earlier to the black child now results in Dinitia’s kindness here. Jeanette’s comfort, after an initial period of getting used to this situation, also suggests a model for finding a home or community: it doesn’t have to be about blood or location, it can be about finding kindness and openness.
That afternoon, a man with a folder under his arm knocks on the door to Jeannette’s house saying he’s from child welfare, and asking for Rex or Rose Mary Walls. He says he’s received a call about possible neglect at the house.
Though Mom and Dad have refused to have anything to do with welfare or the state, the state has managed to seek them out anyway. Their balancing act between non-conformist and reckless seems to have tilted, in the state’s eyes, into recklessness.
Jeannette claims she’s not neglected, and that her parents do work—her dad as an “entrepreneur” developing coal efficiency technology, and her mom as an artist and teacher. She tells him to come back later before she can answer any more questions and she accepts his card.
Even if she goes hungry and lives in filth, Jeannette never hesitates to defend her family to outsiders, embellishing the facts just as Mom and Dad do to make their occupations sound legitimate.
Angry and fuming, Jeannette runs outside to throw rocks from the hill, and worries about how she’ll be unable to fight off the child welfare man like she’d fought off Ernie Goad.
Jeannette has learned to defend herself physically, but this kind of battle requires other skills—ones she’s not sure she has.
Though Jeannette had initially assumed Welch was one more, brief stop, Mom and Dad seem to have lost their desire to move around. They talk vaguely about Australia and Alaska, but their plans never translate into action.
Before, Mom and Dad did not often talk about moving—they just woke the kids up at night and left. By staying in Welch for so long they seem to have stagnated, despite their worsening lifestyle.
When Jeannette gives Mom the child welfare man’s card, Mom grows quiet instead of being self-righteously angry like Jeannette. While Mom paints a picture of a woman drowning in a lake, she tells Jeannette brusquely that she’ll just get a job.
While Jeannette considers the welfare man as a single enemy, Mom is aware of the powerful system behind it. Her morbid painting reflects her angst at having to give up her dreams a get a regular job as a result.
With her teaching certificate, Mom gets a job teaching remedial reading within a week, and the family hurries to clean the house—though the welfare man never returns.
Mom’s ease at getting a teaching job shows how the family’s situation is in many ways a matter of choice—Mom and Dad’s choice.
Mom can’t get along with Lucy Jo Rose, a fellow teacher who drives her to work and thinks that “Jackson Pollock” is a derogatory term for Polish people. Several times a month she refuses to go to work, until the kids cajole her into going.
This example creates a contrast between Mom’s worldliness and artistic knowledge and Lucy Jo’s lack thereof (though Lucy Jo, unlike Mom, still manages to show up for work every day).
For the first time in awhile, though, the family can pay all the bills and buy food and a fridge. Although there are hundreds of dollars left over with each paycheck after the bills are paid, the money never lasts the month and the food always runs out by the end.
Though Mom’s steady job solves many of their problems, it does not do away with all of them, as creating a budget and sticking to it are not part of Mom and Dad’s freedom-loving lifestyle.
Mom claims that it’s difficult to make ends meet with four kids and an alcoholic husband, but Lori and Jeannette draw up a budget as if they were in charge of the money, with generous cuts for Mom’s extravagances, which would still allow for new clothes and coal for heating and other necessities.
Lori and Jeannette, on the other hand, embrace financial organization in order to show that there is actually enough money—Mom and Dad are just not responsible enough to budget it like their daughters.
That fall Jeannette starts seventh grade at Welch High School. Though Dinitia is there, she spends most of her time with the other black girls, though the two do pass notes in study hall.
Though it was easier to be friends outside school, Dinitia and Jeannette still find it difficult not to conform to others’ expectations in school.
Dinitia also starts drinking at school, and has trouble with her mother’s new boyfriend. She passes one note to Jeannette one study hall in December revealing that she’s pregnant. When she doesn’t return to school, Jeannette goes to her house and asks for her, but the door is shut in her face. Jeanette later finds out that Dinitia has been arrested for stabbing and killing her mother’s boyfriend.
Part of growing up, for Jeannette, is watching other people struggle with their own problems, stemming from their own choices as well as inherited from their own families. Dinitia is a sobering example of how a devastating family life can put someone on a path from which it’s nearly impossible to return.
Romantic relationships begin to be the main point of conversation for girls at school. Jeannette doesn’t trust boys, but wishes one would like her even though she’s tall, gangly, and pale with red hair and protruding teeth.
Even though she’s dealt with more than a seventh grader should in terms of disturbing sexual behavior, she’s also a normal middle-schooler whose hopes and expectations conform to her age.
Jeannette has never been to the dentist, and while she initially decides to save up for braces with money she earns babysitting, she is shocked to learn from a classmate that they’re twelve hundred dollars—four years of babysitting.
With many common parts of childhood—like braces—unavailable to Jeannette, she has little ability to gauge how she can participate in these traditions.
She decides to take matters into her own hands, tying a rubber band across her upper teeth, wrapping larger ones around her entire head, and eventually holding them in place with a metal coat hanger. One night Dad comes in and surprises her as she is wearing her contraption. He marvels at her engineering chops.
Jeannette, as usual, takes responsibility for her own desires and commits to carry through the project. This committed nature contrasts with Dad’s behavior, although we can see his engineering interest echoed in Jeannette.
Seventh grade is also when Jeannette begins to work for The Maroon Wave, the school newspaper, where she can fit in and meet people without having to pay for uniforms or equipment. Miss Jeanette Bivens, the organizer, was also Dad’s beloved English teacher who, he says, was the first person to believe in him. He named Jeanette after her.
Other aspects of middle school, like sports and clubs, are similarly barred to Jeannette because of her family’s poverty. It is in part because of this that Miss Bivens and The Wave will become so dear to Jeannette (as the teacher was to Dad).
In the evenings, Jeannette proofreads at the offices of The Welch Daily News, where the Wave is printed, and draws on her experience proofreading Mom’s essays and her students’ homework. She adores setting the type, making corrections, and carefully pasting the lines of the type together.
Jeannette’s love of order and organization serves her well as a proofreader, and the examples she lists are all typical of the characteristics we’ve come to see in her personality.
Jeannette also enjoys watching the reporters and editors at work, as they send journalists out to find out information about something on the police scanner. She realizes that being a writer doesn’t have to mean being isolated like Mom—instead a writer can be intimately acquainted with the world, and “know what was really going on.” Jeannette decides that this is what she wants to do.
Jeannette’s time spent at the newspaper office acquaints her for the first time with a career, rather than the jobs Mom and Dad have held at various times. To “know what was really going on” will become a way to achieve order, undergirding Jeannette’s general process of growing up, as well as her choice of career.
Jeannette sometimes feels badly about not taking care of Maureen, so that year, she, Brian, and Lori save for months to buy Maureen a toy kitchen set at the dollar store. On her birthday, Maureen asks as usual to hear about life in California, and says that’s where she’ll live when she grows up.
We’re reminded of the Christmas in which Mom wanted to do something special for the kids, though this time she’s absent from the preparations. It’s not yet clear if Maureen’s love of California is more than just a dream, but it clearly speaks to her desire to escape Welch.
Maureen does, though, seem happier than the other children, with her beautiful face and many friends whose Pentecostal families take her under their wing. Maureen does, however, start to talk about the devil visiting her and following her around. While Brian wonders if they should keep Maureen away from the Pentecostals, Mom says that religion is individual and each person has to figure out his or her own way.
While Jeannette, Brian, and Lori have shared experiences and hardships that have brought them closer together, Maureen, being younger, has had to find her own way to navigate. In this case, Mom’s lack of judgment comes across as admirably open-minded.
Though at times like these, Jeannette thinks Mom is incredibly wise, Mom’s moods are also becoming more intense and extreme. Near the end of the school year, her negative thoughts completely take over after she’s spent time painting when she should have written her students’ progress evaluations, without which the remedial program will lose its funding.
We’re beginning to hear more about Mom’s wildly swinging moods, which seem to be becoming worse as she ages—perhaps as she realizes her artistic dreams are growing less and less attainable. Her breakdown, though, seems to be entirely due to her own choices.
Lori tries to console Mom as she sobs under the covers, but Jeannette looks on, feeling scornful about her mother’s childish behavior. She swears that she will not end up like her mother by the time she’s thirty-eight, Mom’s age now.
While Jeannette has often made excuses for Dad, she seems unable to feel the same pity and compassion for her mother—perhaps precisely because she fears becoming like her.
Lori, though, feels sorry for Mom for being married to Dad. When Jeannette says that Mom needs to be stronger, Lori says that not even a caryatid (ancient Greek pillars shaped like women that support the temples on its their heads) would be strong enough.
Lori’s caryatid example is a typical one given her love of books and learning. Lori also seems to grasp better than Jeannette how difficult it must be for Mom to take charge and responsibility of their lives given the destabilizing force that Dad is.
That summer, Mom leaves for Charleston to take college courses for her teaching certificate. Lori is heading to a state-sponsored summer camp, so Mom leaves Jeannette with two hundred dollars, giving her an opportunity to prove that Dad just needs a strong woman to manage him.
The implicit argument between the way Jeannette sees Mom and the way Lori understands her can now be played out in reality, with Jeannette taking over Mom’s role with the rest of the family.
The first week, Jeannette sticks to her budget and organizes the house, which has again become a mess.
Her position of responsibility seems to start off seamlessly.
The next week, Dad comes home one afternoon and asks for money for beer and cigarettes—five dollars, or two days’ worth of food. Jeannette finds herself unable to say no, but feels used.
It’s unclear why Jeannette feels she has to give Dad money—she starts to see how family love and loyalty can often subvert rational thinking, and how Dad uses that love for his own purposes.
Dad asks for five dollars again a few days afterward, and then twenty, claiming he needs gas to borrow a friend’s car for a meeting. Jeannette feels increasingly desperate, and when Dad asks if he’s ever let her down, Jeannette is about to tell him the truth. But she can’t manage to, and she gives him the money.
On his end, Dad knows very well how well he can manipulate Jeannette. His daughter may no longer believe in him, but still doesn’t want to hurt him by telling him what she truly thinks.
That weekend, Dad tells Jeannette to accompany him on a business trip to pay back that money. He picks out a nice dress for her and drives her to a dark, run-down roadside bar. Dad leaves her at a bar to play pool, and a mustachioed man named Robbie asks Jeannette to dance and flirts with her.
At first, it seems that Dad is up to another of his harebrained but brilliant tactics. Jeannette has a complicated relationship to flirting, since she’s wanted a boy to notice her, but still knows to be wary of older men.
Though Jeannette expects Dad will be furious once he realizes what’s happening, he seems nonchalant and simply yells over to Robbie to join him in pool. After a few hours, Robbie is drunk and on a losing streak—Dad gets eighty dollars on him.
It becomes clear here that Dad is not just manipulating Jeanette’s love to get money; he is using her like a prop to get money out of Robbie.
Robbie invites Jeannette upstairs to listen to a Roy Acuff record and dance. Jeannette is worried about his intentions, but when Robbie asks Dad he says, “Sure,” and at Jeannette, “Holler if you need me.”
Jeannette still sees Dad as a protector, but here he has given up that role.
Upstairs, Robbie dances with Jeannette but then starts groping and kissing her. Jeannette is too mad at Dad to want to scream for him to rescue her. Robbie mentions how bony she is and Jeannette adds that she has some scars, unbuttoning her dress at the waist to show him. As Robbie pauses, she escapes downstairs.
Though Dad seemed unworried about Jeannette going upstairs, she sees now that it wasn’t because she was in no danger. As usual, Jeannette thinks fast and uses her quick wit to escape from frightening situations on her own.
Afterward, Dad gives Jeannette forty of the dollars he’s won, and though Jeannette is seething, she accepts the money since she knows they need it. Dad asks her if she’s upset about something, and Jeannette tells him Robbie attacked her upstairs. “I knew you could handle yourself,” Dad replies, comparing this to the time he threw her into the water to teach her how to swim.
Jeannette would like to stick to her principles by not accepting the money, but her innate pragmatism wins out. Dad’s comparison to the swimming lesson makes sense in his mind, though he seems to disregard that he’s put her in harm’s way not in a pool but with another human being with his own desires.
A few days later, Dad asks Jeannette to come with him to another bar, and when she refuses, he demands another twenty dollars, which she gives him. Jeannette knows a check is coming from Mom’s Texas land, but Dad beats her to it by waiting for the postman. Dad suggests they hide it together in the encyclopedia, but the next day when Jeannette goes to find another hiding place for it, it’s gone.
Jeannette is now desperately trying to negotiate between keeping herself safe and fulfilling the task Mom set her at the beginning of the summer. Dad’s tricks seem calculated for someone far older than a 13-year-old, and Jeannette’s mistakes confirm that it’s not a fair battle.
Jeannette finally realizes that standing up to Dad is more difficult than she’d thought. She applies for a part-time job at a store called Becker’s Jewel Box, telling Mr. Becker she’s seventeen rather than thirteen, and is hired for forty dollars a week.
It’s taken much of the summer, but Jeannette finally accepts that Lori may have been right and that Mom’s position is difficult. Jeannette, though, continues to search for other options.
Jeannette enjoys the work at the store since anyone buying jewelry is happy, despite Welch’s poverty. But it annoys her when Mr. Becker takes the key to the diamond display case with him when he leaves for lunch, and carefully counts each ring upon his return.
As a clerk at a jewelry store, Jeannette both enjoys and is wary of the enormous amount of wealth on display. Mr. Becker does not trust her responsibility, and so he locks the case.
Jeannette is particularly attracted to the watches, which actually serve a purpose and stands for someone’s need to be places. Jeannette dreams about taking one of the watches for herself.
For Jeannette, a watch is not just a luxury item but an object that symbolizes the kind of person she would like to become.
One day, an employee from another of Mr. Becker’s stores stops by and, in conversation, Jeannette learns the other woman makes a commission of ten per cent of every sale. When Jeannette asks Mr. Becker why she doesn’t get a commission, he says that as an assistant she’s not eligible for commissions.
Jeannette may have thought she had tricked Mr. Becker into hiring her before 17, but he has his own ways of making sure he benefits even at her expense. Another betrayal of a child by an adult.
The next day Jeannette slips into the watch display case, which Mr. Becker doesn’t see a need to keep locked, and slides a watch she likes it into her purse. She tries it on in her bunk bed at night.
Note how mistrust and betrayal leads to betrayal in turn. Jeanette feels justified in stealing the watch because Mr. Becker has cheated her.
But since she’s worried about being seen with the watch on, Jeannette decides to only wear it at home—but then wonders how to explain it to her family. Mr. Becker might even be able to tell she’s done something wrong by her attitude, she thinks, and since she can’t lie well she’ll become a juvenile delinquent. The next week she slips the watch back into the display case.
Though rational thinking has led to the crime, it also permits Jeannette to see that there’s no way she can sustain the subterfuge. Unlike her parents, Jeannette has a conception of the consequences of her actions.
At the end of August, Lori returns from camp bursting with stories about the friends, food, and songs of her summer. It’s the first time she’s realized, she tells Jeannette, that she could have a happy, normal life.
For Lori, it has required leaving not only Welch but also her family for this epiphany to take place. That it was not clear to her that she could have a happy life is a testament to the warped world her parent’s have created for her.
Mom returns from her summer, where she adored living without responsibilities, committed to concentrating on herself rather than others by quitting teaching and working on her art. She asks Jeannette why she should be the one earning money, and says that Jeannette and Lori can get jobs.
Mom’s attitude is similar to Lori’s, though as the mother it’s more complicated for her to “escape” their life in Welch. Still, Mom wants to challenge the idea that her role as parent comprises certain responsibilities, like providing for the family.
The first day of school, Mom refuses to leave with Lucy Jo, and when Jeannette’s cajoling doesn’t work, Jeannette says that to be treated like a mother Mom should act like one.
After attempting to deal with Mom in a number of indirect ways, Jeannette finally states outright what she thinks about Mom’s lack of responsibility.
Mom tells Dad when he returns home that Jeannette back-talked her, and Dad admonishes her for not respecting her parents. Jeannette repeats that neither of them is acting like parents, and when Dad threatens to beat her with his belt if she doesn’t apologize, she refuses. He whips her on the back of her thighs six times.
Jeannette, having tried to take on responsibility for the summer, is clearly angry that her parents won’t do the same—won’t fit into the roles that Jeannette believes they ought to. Rather than engaging with the argument, Dad simply punishes her. Her parents want the authority of parenthood, but not the responsibility.
Jeannette races outside and into the woods, where she throws up. She wanders for hours through the trees until she’s made two decisions: first, that she will never allow anyone to whip her like that again; and second, that she would follow Lori in escaping from Welch and their family.
The profound unfairness of this physical punishment—her parents asserting their rights over her—when they have so completely ceases to take responsibility for their own actions that drives Jeanette to understand that they are the cause of everything that’s wrong in her life, that, in effect, she will never find a home where her parents are.
Jeannette buys a plastic piggy bank and puts the seventy-five dollars she’s earned at her job that summer into it, beginning her escape fund.
Though modest and even silly-looking, the plastic piggy bank will become a powerful symbol of Jeannette and her siblings’ dreams for the future.
That fall at school, two New York filmmakers, Ken Fink and Bob Gross, arrive in Welch as part of a government cultural program. Despite their funny names, Jeannette is awed by their clever, complex humor and the symbolist foreign films they show. After one showing, Lori shows them her illustrations and they say that New York City is the place to be if she really wants to pursue art.
Just as Jeannette and Lori have committed themselves to escaping Welch, two other “foreigners” arrive to show that a different way of life is in fact possible. It’s also this fortuitous visit that gives the sisters the name and idea of New York City as a destination for their vague escape plan.
New York also appeals to Lori as a place where it won’t matter that she’s different, wearing army boots and polka-dot dresses rather than jeans and T-shirts and creating Gothic-style paintings late into the night.
From the start, Welch’s inhabitants have seemed unable to deal with those who are “different,” whether through poverty or aesthetic choices.
Jeannette offers to make her escape fund a joint fund, and she and Lori name the piggy bank Oz. Lori starts to paint commissioned posters for Welch High students to hang on their walls. Jeannette babysits and does other kids’ homework, guaranteeing them at least an A-. Brian, though too young to imagine leaving with his sisters, pitches in by mowing lawns and cutting weeds.
As usual, the Walls siblings (barring Maureen) act as a team—even though Brian is not initially part of the escape plan. Naming the Piggy bank Oz suggests their sense of the fantasy of their vision their uncertainty if it’s achievable.
The money in Oz is safe, since there’s no plugged hole at the bottom and the slot at the top is too thin to extract the money.
From the summer, Jeannette is well aware of the danger of keeping loose money in the house.
One day that winter, Jeannette arrives home to find a Cadillac Coupe DeVille outside their house, which Dad has won at a poker game. Jeannette knows Dad should sell the car to pay for clothes, food, and electricity, but he wouldn’t think of it. Jeannette, too, comes to love the car, which they name “Elvis.”
The car contrasts vividly with the squalor in which the Walls family lives, but despite her pragmatic principles, Jeannette too finds that something as nice as a Cadillac can be seductive.
Mom uses the car to drive to craft fairs and try to sell some of her paintings. When the family accompanies her, they sleep in the car, and Jeannette remembers how easy it used to be to stay on the move.
An echo of a moment earlier in the book, when Jeannette had considered home as a function of all the car trips they’ve taken. There is a sense that the family’s juggling act between order and turbulence is much harder to maintain once they’ve settled down; though at the same time there was no way not to settle down. That border between order and turbulence can be exhilarating, but it can’t ever less.
As Lori’s graduation from high school approaches, she has fears for her future in New York—the escape plan has never fully included what she’ll do once she gets there. She initially thinks she’ll get a college scholarship and is a National Merit Scholarship finalist, but she has to hitchhike to Bluefield to take the test. The trucker she gets a ride with tries to seduce her and she is unnerved enough that she doesn’t do well on the test.
Even as Lori plots to escape Welch, the circumstances that define and limit what she is able to do there have far-reaching implications, preventing her from establishing one straightforward path that she could take once she gets to New York.
Lori then puts together a portfolio for the Cooper Union art school, but spills coffee on it just before it’s due. She hears about a scholarship for the best work of art inspired by a literary genius, and decides to make a clay bust of Shakespeare.
Lori’s attempts to apply for higher education seem increasingly desperate, even doomed, though also substantially creative.
Dad thinks Shakespeare is a fraud, since no one person could have had his vocabulary, and that instead his plays were written by a group of people. As Dad is explaining this to Lori, he reaches over to the sculpture and wipes off the mouth, renaming it the Mute Bard. Lori is devastated but Dad says she’s thinking like a “sheep.”
Dad’s conspiracy theories are never far below the surface and can crop up at any time. Dad thinks that his modification of the sculpture makes it more creative, a better, more non-conformist piece of art—yet his modification is another instance of him asserting control over his children after having given up any right to do so through his neglect. It also seems like he might be angry and ashamed that Lori wants to leave.
Jeannette says that Lori should still go to New York, get a job, and save up until she can apply to school.
Jeannette refuses to give up on the escape fund—after all, if Lori can’t make it, how will she?
Dad sulks since the entire family is upset with him, and wonders aloud why Lori would even want to go to a dirty sinkhole like New York.
Even though Dad is often physically absent, his distress at the family breaking up shows that he does still care.
One May evening, Jeannette returns to her bedroom to put a few babysitting dollars into Oz, and finds him slashed open on the floor, with all the money gone.
Much of the action has been building to this point: with the money gone and bank slashed, both the dream of escape and the possibility for it have vanished.
Jeannette wonders desperately if she can quickly make back the nine months’ worth of money that they have saved, but when she goes into the living room, Lori can tell from her face that something is wrong. She runs into the bedroom and starts whimpering rather than screaming.
Jeannette’s half-baked plan reveals her desperation, while Lori’s response shows just how devastated she is. Neither can, in this moment, think of new solutions like usual. Lori’s whimpering is a sign of her total devastation.
Dad doesn’t come home for three days, and when he does he seems nonchalant despite Lori’s and Jeannette’s fury. He throws a few dollars at them. Jeannette asks him why he’s doing this to them, and his face grows angry, but he stumbles to the sofa and passes out. Lori says she’ll never leave, but Jeannette reassures Lori that she will—it’s the only way to know she, Jeanette, will be able to leave too.
Jeannette and Lori attempt, finally, to have a direct confrontation with Dad. But his alcoholism acts as a shield, and the sisters get no satisfying response or even excuse. But even despite the confrontation’s failure, it gives Jeannette motivation to start over, and to convince Lori that she will escape.
The next day Jeannette buys a change purse, which she wears under her clothes, and then hides in a hole in the wall in the house.
It’s taken time, but Jeannette has been forced to mature into a trickster nearly as good as her dad. (Also, finally the broken down nature of their house serves a positive function).
They have made only $37.20 by the summer, when one of Jeannette’s babysitting families offers to take her to Iowa to take care of their two children for the summer, and then pay for her ticket back to Welch. Jeannette tells the mother, Mrs. Sanders, to take Lori instead, and to buy her a return ticket to New York City rather than Welch.
Despite Jeannette and Lori’s commitment, they haven’t been able to make all the money back on their own. The babysitting family’s offer underlines that the two must, in fact, rely on others and cannot be entirely self-sufficient.
The day Lori leaves, she refuses to say a word to Dad, but hugs the rest of the family and leaves without looking back. Dad says that the family is falling apart, and Jeannette agrees.
Though they agree, this statement means one thing to Dad, who is largely responsible for the breakdown, and Jeannette, for whom Lori’s escape is actually a triumph.
Now in the tenth grade, Jeannette becomes the news editor of The Maroon Wave, and enjoys attending school events since she now has an excuse to be there alone.
Even after years, Jeannette has never fully fit in at Welch, but can now take refuge in the newspaper’s responsibilities.
Jeannette spends her lunch hour writing and editing, giving her an excuse for why she doesn’t eat lunch, and an opportunity to find the industrial-sized cans left in the cafeteria garbage.
The Wave becomes a kind of home for Jeannette, as well as a more practical opportunity to take food scavenging into her own hands.
Jeannette gets the editor-in-chief job as a junior and sells newspapers in the hallways. She only reaches a small percentage of the school, even though she tries creating poetry competitions and a fashion column. One day, someone tells her that the same names always appear in the newspaper. She establishes a “Birthday Corner” and circulation doubles, though Miss Bivens wonders if this counts as serious journalism.
Just as Jeannette has tried multiple, increasingly crafty ways to keep the family purse from Dad, she applies this same motivation to selling newspapers. Her pragmatism clashes a bit with Miss Biven’s more idealistic notion of journalism, and also foreshadows the sort of journalism Jeanette will eventually get into.
That year, Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier and one of Dad’s heroes, comes to give a speech at Welch High. Dad is thrilled and helps Jeannette think up all kinds of questions, since Yeager has agreed to let her interview him. Dad stays up late teaching Jeannette all about aviation history and aerodynamics.
This last-minute education recalls the earlier, and happier, times in Jeannette’s childhood when Dad would regale the kids with adventure stories and facts about science and stars. Again, even as Dad descends into neglectful and dangerous alcoholism, there remain moments when his charm, knowledge, and caring remain visible and enthralling.
Chuck Yeager holds the entire school in thrall, and later allows Jeannette to interview him for almost an hour. During the interview she mentions the airplanes he’s flown in that she learned about from Dad, and Yeager calls her an expert. For a brief moment, the other kids at school all compete to talk to her, asking her about the interview.
Jeannette may have lost her faith in Dad, but she can still admit that he is in many ways brilliant—and Chuck Yaeger’s compliment to her is indirectly a compliment to him. This is Jeanette’s first experience of being popular.
In New York, Lori is working as a waitress at a German Restaurant, taking classes, and loving how art and music are everywhere. Jeannette counts down the months until she can join her.
After the setbacks, fears, and worries about the unknown, it seems that Lori has succeeded in establishing a life outside Welch—setting a promising example for Jeannette.
Jeannette has decided to enroll in a city college in New York and apply for a job at the wire services AP or UPI, becoming one of the important writers the people at The Welch Daily News joke about.
What Jeannette has learned through her nights proofreading and editing is actually now materializing into a concrete career path.
When Jeannette goes to see Miss Katona, the college guidance counselor, she advises Jeannette to apply to college in-state, since it’ll be cheaper. Jeannette proposes to move to New York for senior year so that she’ll be in-state there, but Miss Katona counsels her against it because of all that she’ll miss—the prom and Senior Day. Jeannette is skeptical that she’ll miss much, and thinks seriously about leaving after junior year. She races home and again notices her unfinished paint job, recalling how nothing she’s done to improve their lot in Welch has worked.
Miss Katona’s advice regarding the prom and Senior Day are ludicrous given Jeanette’s situation. Her needs, her goals, have made her grow up faster, to see other things as more important. Here, the unfinished house painting serves to confirm that Jeannette must leave Welch if she really wants to make it, that Welch and her parents themselves stand in the way of her becoming what she wants to be. That she needs to take responsibility of her own life.
When Jeannette tells her parents her plan, Dad walks out without saying anything. Mom encourages her to go to New York, but seems about to cry. She says it’s not fair that Jeannette gets to leave and she’s stuck in Welch.
Of course, Mom could make plans to leave Welch as well, but what she really seems to envy is Jeannette’s motivation and commitment in doing so.
Lori offers Jeannette a place in her apartment, and Brian starts counting down the months, as Jeannette had done with Lori. Dad, on the other hand, barely speaks to Jeannette anymore.
Dad continues to not understand the destructive force he becomes. The love behind his anger his clear, but so are his delusions.
One evening, though, he asks Jeannette to take a look at something with him. He spreads the blueprints for the Glass Castle, which they haven’t mentioned since they started filling up the foundation with trash, on the living room table. He tells Jeannette he’s redoing the layout so that her room will be bigger, and shows her his intricate diagrams and measurements.
In this, one of the book’s most devastating scenes, Dad tries in vain to resurrect the old dreams for a better life, down to the most elaborate details—as if the better he described the dream, the more real it might seem to Jeannette.
Jeannette tells Dad that he’ll never build the Glass Castle, and that even if he does she’ll be gone.
This is the bluntest Jeannette’s ever been in refusing to subscribe to Dad’s illusions.
Dad suggests that Jeannette can stay in Welch and get a job at The Welch Daily News while he works on the Glass Castle.
Dad modifies his dream somewhat to allow for Jeannette to pursue some of her own dreams, like journalism.
Jeannette tells him that there’s no way she’s staying put, and if he builds the Glass Castle it shouldn’t be for her. Dad walks out with his blueprints without saying a word.
Jeannette refuses to be swayed, showing how she really has lost so many of her childhood illusions.
At the end of May, Jeannette is feeling increasingly scared. She says goodbye to Miss Bivens, who assures her that she’ll be alright but wonders aloud who will serve as editor of the newspaper—she thinks she might try to convince Brian.
Miss Bivens is one of the few positive adult influences in Jeannette’s life: here, she strikes an effective balance between encouraging Jeannette and noting how much she’s needed in Welch.
As Jeannette packs, she decides to leave everything from the past behind, even her geode, which she gives to Maureen.
Jeannette’s few material possessions have defined her throughout her childhood. By leaving them behind she seeks to establish a new identity.
Jeannette leaves on the seven-ten morning bus, so Mom, who likes to sleep in, doesn’t wake up to see her off. But Dad is there to carry her suitcase, and gives her his favorite jackknife before she departs. He tells her she can always come home if she needs to, but Jeannette knows she never will.
Though Dad has been unable to directly ask Jeannette to stay, and unable to articulate his dismay at her departure, his actions underline both how he’ll miss her and how much he cares about her. She has inherited her parents’ self-sufficiency.
As Jeannette looks out the window at Dad, she wonders if he had left Welch at 17 thinking he’d never come back either.
Yet even as Jeannette is positive she’ll never return, she is aware of how adolescent dreams can so easily crumble.