Jeannette Walls is the second oldest of four children. Her father, Rex, is an alcoholic, and her mother, Rose Mary, a painter and artist. Until Jeannette is six, the family moves around Arizona and California every few months when Rex’s and Rose Mary’s debts grow too numerous. When Jeannette is seven, the family moves to Battle Mountain, Nevada where they enjoy stability for the first time as Rex works for a mining company and the family lives in a converted railway station. Eventually Rex loses his job and the children grow hungry. Rose Mary, who has a teaching certificate, gets a job teaching at the local school, but Rex quickly siphons away her paycheck. Even so, the family is happy there until a young boy develops a fixation on Jeannette and attacks her with a BB gun when the children are home alone. Jeannette’s older sister Lori retrieves their father’s pistol to scare him away but the police are called and when Rex and Rose Mary learn that the children might be taken away from them, they decide to flee to Phoenix, Arizona. Jeannette initially believes they are moving to live with her maternal grandmother, but on the way she is informed Grandma Smith has passed away and that they are going to live on the property Rose Mary has inherited from her mother.
At first, life is happy for the children. Their mother’s house is big, and Grandma Smith also left her a significant amount of money. However, the money quickly disappears and the house falls into a state of disrepair. Rex asks Jeannette what she would like for her 10th birthday, and Jeannette says she would like him to stop drinking. He ties himself to a bed for a week to overcome his addiction to alcohol, then decides to take the family on a trip to the desert. When their car breaks down in the desert, a woman who picks them up and takes them to the city refers to them as “poor”, causing Rex to relapse. Rose Mary decides that since they have no money it is time to move again, and she takes the family to their paternal grandparents’s in Welch, West Virginia.
In Welch the children meet their paternal grandparents and uncle for the first time. They are enrolled in school; however, since Rose Mary abandoned their records, and the children have accents unfamiliar to the locals, they are placed in a class for challenged children. Jeannette is repeatedly beat up by local girls, but when she helps the neighbor of the lead bully, she is no longer targeted. Rex and Rose Mary decide to return to Phoenix to retrieve some valuable items they abandoned. While they are gone, Jeannette walks in on her grandmother molesting Brian. Lori gets into a physical altercation with their grandmother, and she and Brian realize their father was probably molested as well. When Rex returns, he admonishes his children rather than defending them, but the family is told to leave. They relocate to a small rotting house with no indoor plumbing, on land that Rex acquires with the intention of building his dream house, a glass castle.