Thursday, August 15, 2013
It is 1970 in a small town in California. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister, Liz, is fifteen when their artistic mother, Charlotte, a woman who “found something wrong with every place she ever lived,” takes off to find herself, leaving her girls enough money to last a month or two. When Bean returns from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz decide to take the bus to Virginia, where their Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that’s been in Charlotte’s family for generations.
An impetuous optimist, Bean soon discovers who her father was, and hears many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Because money is tight, Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town—a big man who bullies his workers, his tenants, his children, and his wife. Bean adores her whip-smart older sister—inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, nonconformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz.
Jeannette Walls, supremely alert to abuse of adult power, has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices. -- Scribner
I consider myself a pretty big fan of Jeannette Walls, and I'll basically read anything and everything she writes. So it was with much excitement that I sat down to her latest novel THE SILVER STAR. THE SILVER STAR tells the story of twelve year old Bean and her fifteen year old sister Liz. Their mother Charlotte has just abandoned them for a month or so to "find herself," and the girls do their best to survive on their own. However one day, the police arrive at their door so Bean and Liz head to Virginia to find their mom's family.
While in Virginia, Bean discovers who her father was and learns more details about her mother's past. Bean seems to be thriving in her new home, while Liz becomes more withdrawn. Because the girls need some money to buy new clothes for school, Bean and Liz start doing odd jobs for Jerry Maddox, the foreman of the mill and a really bad guy. When Jerry's actions become downright inappropriate towards Liz, Bean is determined to get revenge and help her sister to heal.
I enjoyed THE SILVER STAR but I wasn't blown away by it -- like I was with THE GLASS CASTLE. I realize it's not quite fair to compare everything Ms. Walls writes to her first book, but I just can't help myself. I loved that book and her other two didn't really equal it in my mind. Now, if I'm judging THE SILVER STAR on its own merit, I'd say that it was a pretty good story but not really anything "new"... if that makes sense. Maybe I was just expecting too much?
Having said all of that, there were some quality things about THE SILVER STAR that stood out to me. First and foremost was the character of Bean. I absolutely adored that girl. Maybe it was because she reminded me a bit of Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but this girl had so much courage and gumption that I couldn't help but root for her. I also liked the character of Liz whom I found to be more complex and flawed and therefore more interesting.
Another aspect of this novel that I appreciated was the setting. I love books that take place in the South and especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s when times were definitely changing. The town's high school was being integrated and I liked that THE SILVER STAR explored some of the issues associated with this.
And finally, I appreciated that this novel explored mental illness and abuse. Naturally, these subject matters aren't always easy to read; however, Ms. Walls has a way of writing about them which just draws me in. I sensed that Ms. Walls wrote this story using some of her personal experiences, but I also think she took the liberty to create a character in Bean that was able to stand up for herself and go against what was expected of her.
THE SILVER STAR would make an interesting book club selection. There is a reading guide with twelve discussion questions along with some ideas to enhance your meeting. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include family dynamics, mental illness, abuse, justice, race, power, change, and mother/child relationships. You also might want to explore some of the major themes in the story like the emus (yes... emus!)
I recommend THE SILVER STAR to fans of Jeannette Walls as well as readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories and books about dysfunctional families.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.