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The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

The_Glass_Castle The Glass Castle is a moving and often shocking memoir by former writer, Jeannette Walls, who  grew up in poverty (an understatement) in an unstable home (a major understatement).   This book draws you in right from the beginning when, after she sees her mom digging in the dumpster, she asks the taxi driver to take her back to her Park Avenue apartment.  She then tells the story of her upbringing.

From the Publisher (Scribner)

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Continue reading ...

Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

The information below may contain spoilers

Book Club Party Ideas

In The Glass Castle, Jeannette talks about their many car trips when her dad would sing Ol’ Man River while their mom would sing Don’t Fence Me In and This Land Is Your Land.  One of the many times she fetched her dad from the bar, he sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Unless you want to thoroughly depress everyone at your book club party, I recommend more upbeat tunes, like Kanye West’s Strongerthat don’t kill me, can only make me stronger.

Jeannette’s most prized possession as her family moves from place to place is a geode.  A geode looks like a boring round rock, but when you break it open there are white quartz crystals or sparkling purple amethysts inside.  This description reminded me of Jeannette herself…unbathed and tattered on the inside, beautiful on the inside.

Jeannette and Brian would collect cans, bottles and scrap metal and use the proceeds to buy candy.  Brian loved Sweet Tarts and Jeannette, although she loved chocolate, would pick Sugar Daddies because they lasted longer.  As part of the decorations, have a jar filled with these candies.

Candy for book club party for The Glass Castle


Book Club Menu

At your book club party for The Glass Castle, I recommend not serving alcohol!

Many of the meals they ate growing up would not be suitable for a book club party – cat food, leftover lunch bags in the trash, a stick of margarine, a vat of fish and rice or beans boiled with ham bone (for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week, with added spice if it started to go bad).

One recipe I just had to try was “Birds in a Blanket” made by the town lady of the evening.  It is made with chicken, mayo, cheese whiz, and potato chips rolled up in bread.  With food in her belly, Jeannette thought “One thing about whoring:  It put a chicken on the table.”

chicken, bread, potato chips, cheese whiz

To celebrate the more joyous and abundant times, serve the Thanksgiving meal they had at Jeannette’s house:

Roasted Turkey with Turkey Gravy Stuffing with Sausage, Walnuts and Apples
Creamed Onions Wild Rice
Squash Casserole Cranberry Sauce

roasted turkey, onions, wild rice

For dessert, they had 3 apple pies.  We made Oat Crunch Apple Pie, Caramel Lemon-Spiced Apple Pie and The Basic (and best) Apple Pie. 

Oat crunch, lemon caramel, lattice apple pie recipes

At the dinner, Brian notes that its not that hard to put food on the table if that is what you decide to do.

Book Club Resources


  • “Jeannette Walls has carved a story with precision and grace out of one of the most chaotic, heartbreaking childhoods ever to be set down on the page. This deeply affecting memoir is a triumph in every possible way, and it does what all good books should: it affirms our faith in the human spirit.”- Dani Shapiro, author of Family History
  • “The Glass Castle is the saga of the restless, indomitable Walls family, led by a grand eccentric and his tempestuous artist wife. Jeannette Walls has survived poverty, fires, and near starvation to triumph. She has written this amazing tale with honesty and love.” – Patricia Bosworth, author of Anything Your Little Heart Desires and Diane Arbus: A Biography
  • “If you read The Glass Castle for no other reason, read it for the beautiful writing. Walls is a true master of language and storytelling, and reading this book is a good education for writers and readers alike.” – Amy’s Blog

Discussion Questions (from ***may contain spoilers***

1. Though The Glass Castle is brimming with unforgettable stories, which scenes were the most memorable for you? Which were the most shocking, the most inspiring, the funniest?

2. Discuss the metaphor of a glass castle and what it signifies to Jeannette and her father. Why is it important that, just before leaving for New York, Jeannette tells her father that she doesn’t believe he’ll ever build it? (p. 238).

3. The first story Walls tells of her childhood is that of her burning herself severely at age three, and her father dramatically takes her from the hospital: “You’re safe now” (p. 14). Why do you think she opens with that story, and how does it set the stage for the rest of the memoir?

4. Rex Walls often asked his children, “Have I ever let you down?” Why was this question (and the required “No, Dad” response) so important for him — and for his kids? On what occasions did he actually come through for them?

5. Jeannette’s mother insists that, no matter what, “life with your father was never boring” (p. 288). What kind of man was Rex Walls? What were his strengths and weaknesses, his flaws and contradictions?

6. Discuss Rose Mary Walls. What did you think about her description of herself as an “excitement addict”? (p. 93).

7. Though it portrays an incredibly hardscrabble life, The Glass Castle is never sad or depressing. Discuss the tone of the book, and how do you think that Walls achieved that effect?

8 Describe Jeannette’s relationship to her siblings and discuss the role they played in one another’s lives.

9. In college, Jeannette is singled out by a professor for not understanding the plight of homeless people; instead of defending herself, she keeps quiet. Why do you think she does this?

10. The two major pieces of the memoir — one half set in the desert and one half in West Virginia — feel distinct. What effect did such a big move have on the family — and on your reading of the story? How would you describe the shift in the book’s tone?

11. Were you surprised to learn that, as adults, Jeannette and her siblings remained close to their parents? Why do you think this is?

12. What character traits — both good and bad — do you think that Jeannette inherited from her parents? And how do you think those traits shaped Jeannette’s life?

13. For many reviewers and readers, the most extraordinary thing about The Glass Castle is that, despite everything, Jeannette Walls refuses to condemn her parents. Were you able to be equally nonjudgmental?

14. Like Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club and Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle tells the story of a wildly original (and wildly dysfunctional) family with humor and compassion. Were their other comparable memoirs that came to mind? What distinguishes this book?

About the Author

Jeannette_Walls More about Jeannette Walls

Other books by Jeannette Walls

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