The Silver Star: A Novel
- Jeannette Walls
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Herta B. Feely
- August 2, 2013
Left by their mother, two girls set out on their own to Virginia and face struggles in their new town.
Sounding much like a page from her bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ second novel, The Silver Star, gets off to a galloping start. The mother of two young girls leaves home in the middle of the night, dragging her children with her, but in the heat of the moment forgets she placed the baby (Bean) in a carrier on the roof of the car and takes off. Bean’s sister screams and saves her. Because this is the kind of behavior you’d expect from Walls’ real mother, this coming-of-age novel has an instant sort of believability.
However, and perhaps interestingly, the quirky mother is a minor character, a backdrop to the real story, which is about Bean Holladay, the novel’s 12-year-old narrator, and to a lesser extent Bean’s clever 15-year-old sister, Liz. The author dispenses with the mother early on. It’s 1970, and in her pretend world, the girls’ mother has illusions of success as a singer. Wanting time alone to achieve her imagined stardom, she abandons her two girls after a moody and volatile outburst. The girls have just enough money for several weeks’ worth of chicken potpies and are forced to sneak away when people from social services (“bandersnatches”) come snooping around. The only place to go is Virginia, where their mother grew up, and so begins their cross- country trek from California. (Again, I couldn’t help drawing the comparison to Walls’ real life story in which the entire family moves from California to rural West Virginia.)
Naturally, the two sisters run into a couple of scary situations before arriving in rural Virginia, where their Uncle Tinsley lives in a dilapidated old mansion. Despite some initial reluctance, their eccentric and reclusive uncle, who over time we come to love, takes them in. However, the story falters from here and, for a time, follows a sort of ho-hum trajectory: The girls encounter other members of their family, who are welcoming; Bean learns of her father, about whom she knew little; and they try to fit in at school, which Bean accomplishes more readily than Liz. We wonder when the mother will show up, though she does soon enough, thereby removing a potential element of suspense. The tension revolves primarily around the girls getting part-time jobs working for Jerry Maddox, the bullying foreman of the town’s mill, a man their uncle despises. At the outset the reader senses that no good will come of this.
Without revealing too many details, a little more than halfway through the story trouble erupts between Liz and Jerry Maddox and she is hurt. Bean takes it upon herself to gain justice for her sister. Here Walls creates some good suspense and tension. And yet, she subverts her own opportunity to resolve not only Liz’s crisis but also the town’s dilemma. At the very moment when they could, the townspeople do not rally around Liz and thereby unshackle themselves from the oppressive Maddox. Of course, they are afraid — after all, he holds their livelihood in his hand — but then in a rather flimsy twist they regain their nerve after the trial, and a semblance of justice occurs.
The story ends much as it began, with a mother who disappoints her daughters. It seemed sad that the girls’ hope to be reunited with their mother is dashed and that they are treated to more of her pipedreams: “‘The Tribe of Three,’ [their mother] said, ‘will be together again soon.’ We watched as the Dart disappeared around the bend in the driveway. ‘She’s gone,’ Liz said.” Accepting this disappointment so stoically also reminded me of Walls’ experience of life with a woman who far too often failed her as a mother.
Overall, this story is only mildly entertaining and too often felt like a Young Adult novel — at times not a very good one, especially when the author has Bean take a potshot at To Kill a Mockingbird (“For all of Miss Jarvis’s singing its praises as great literature, a lot of the kids in the class had real problems with the book.”). The narrative suggests that Harper Lee’s novel treats racism superficially, which is odd since The Silver Star boils racial tensions down to a fight at a football game, and the failure to integrate schools is depicted through cheerleading tryouts.
I found the story not nearly as captivating as Walls’ memoir, or other novels told from the perspective of a child. Not only does it not measure up to a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, but it doesn’t come close to other adult novels with young protagonists, such as Emma Donoghue’s Room (riveting and brilliant) or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (extraordinary and quirky), or even Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (charming if a bit maudlin).
Walls’ first novel, Half Broke Horses, is by her own admission only half-fiction, based as it is on the story of her maternal grandmother. And though The Silver Star contains the themes of abandonment and injustice of her memoir, this book is legitimately her first full-fledged novel. I hope her next effort will prove better.
Herta Feely is a writer and editor whose short stories and works of memoir have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She has just completed a novel, and her anthology, Confessions: Fact or Fiction?, was published in 2012. Visit her at www.chrysaliseditorial.com.