All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Silver Star – Jeannette Walls

on July 16, 2013

Silver StarThe Silver Star
Jeannette Walls
Simon & Schuster UK
2013, 267p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AUS

In 1970, Bean is 12 and her sister Liz 15. The two sisters have lived a nomadic life, dragged around the country by their mother Charlotte, an aspiring musician and singer. Charlotte has never stayed in one place for long, feeling “stifled” and often leaves the girls for long stretches to “find herself” or look for work in a specific location. At first she left the girls with other people but now that Liz is older, she’s left in charge. The two girls are often alone for days but after a huge fight, Charlotte leaves and doesn’t come back. After the two girls see a policeman sniffing around their house, they decide to leave in case social services are called in and the girls taken and split up. They travel by bus from California to their uncle’s house in Virginia. Their mother’s brother, Tinsley is stunned when the two girls appear without warning on his doorstep. At first he isn’t sure what to do with them and says that they cannot remain there. However it’s obvious that they have no where else to go and it seems that Tinsley is not unsympathetic to their plight. He seems familiar with his sister’s twisted way of looking at things and the girls quite obviously need stability.

As they settle in to life in the small Virginian mill town, Bean learns the truth about who her father really was and the circumstances under which he died, which tell her that her mother, often deep in a fantasy land, has been lying to her. She begins spending time with her late father’s family, becomes a part of their lives. In order to get money, the two girls begin work for local mill foreman Jerry Maddox. Bean helps Jerry’s wife Doris, who is pregnant with her fourth child, entertaining the two smallest boys, doing some cleaning etc. Liz helps Jerry, filing his paperwork and doing other things. At first the situation seems good but then Jerry becomes overly familiar and more than just a little odd.

One day Liz comes home, her face beaten, her clothes torn after a ride in the car with Jerry Maddox. Fired up after reading To Kill A Mockingbird in class, Bean is incensed when she realises he uncle just wants to leave it and pretend it never happened. Although Maddox is powerful and well versed in the law, Bean convinces Liz to do the right thing. He should be punished for what he did… if life works like that.

The Silver Star is an interesting depiction of life in small town America during the Vietnam war and when segregation was coming to an end. Bean and Liz spent part of their childhood in California, mixing with Mexicans and going to school with them but when they arrive in Virginia, the African-American students from a local nearby high school are just about to be integrated at the local high school. This does not occur without some trouble and a riot at a local high school football game leads Bean’s English teacher to set the class To Kill A Mockingbird. Bean identifies with this novel, she ends up using it as her reasoning for urging Liz to come forward and press charges about what Jerry Maddox does to her. This action marks the two girls, leaves them open to bullying and ostracisation but Bean never truly wavers from her convictions. In the earlier portion of the novel, it is Liz who is portrayed as the strong one, the one who takes charge when Charlotte leaves, the one who decides that they must go to Virginia in order to avoid being separated. But by the end of the novel it seems that Bean is now the strong one, the one who wants desperately for justice to be served, who wants to fight for what is right.

I loved the way the two girls forged a relationship with their uncle, whom they hadn’t seen since they were very small. He’s shocked by their appearance and reluctant for them to stay but he begins to thaw and it becomes quite obvious very quickly that he enjoys having them around, especially Bean. Tinsley is a widower and he and his late wife were never blessed with children so at times he does feel as though it’s a little hard to relate to them and look after them but he tries. So much. He sees the need that they have for some stability, to not be dragged all over the country by their flighty mother, who would uproot them every 3-6 months and pick a new destination where she was sure she was going to be able to find the magic in her composing and singing. Charlotte was not a character I could extend my sympathy too – the regular and constant uprooting of the girls, the fact that she left them, often for days on end and the way in which she disappeared and then reappeared as though she were the answer to their every question and problem made me long for someone to tell her how it really was. I applauded Bean silently when late in the novel, she does just that, albeit in her own gentle way.

It’s clear the novel draws much from To Kill A Mockingbird – there are some inherent similarities that go beyond the fact that Scout and Bean could be seen as similar (they even have the same name, Jean). There’s also a court case that involves the children where the outcome isn’t to their favour and ruins someone in the town’s reputation even further and some of the relationships and character interactions here do mimic those of the great classic. This book is set later than TKAM so the tolerance and racial issues are slightly different but it’s still about integration and “blacks and whites” having the right to use the same facilities and have the same rights and the fact that some people don’t want this. If anything it highlights how little some things changed between TKAM and this novel, which are set some 40 odd years apart. However it lacked the punch of the classic, the deep exploration of issues. This seems more a surface read, too much time devoted to the flighty mother and less on the racial and small-town issues. It’s an enjoyable read and the character of Bean is charming but it doesn’t have quite the impact that it could.

7/10

Book #183 of 2013

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3 responses to “The Silver Star – Jeannette Walls

  1. I agree with your assessment of The Silver Star. I gave it a 3 out of 4, pretty close to your 7 out of 10. I had 2 problems with it. The 1st, like you said, didn’t generate enough emotional connection The 2nd problem is not Jeannette’s fault: The Silver Star is NOT The Glass Castle, which is one of my top 12 all-time.

  2. ezpat1981 says:

    I really enjoyed The Glass Castle. From your review it seems that she has drawn on her own nomadic experience in the book. I think, like Lloyd, I might draw too many comparisons btw the books to really enjoy it.

  3. Hm, this sounds like a fascinating novel. It’s interesting that the two girls eventually end up switching positions in that Bean ends up being the stronger and more resilient of the two despite being the younger sister. I’m assuming that their relationship is what acts as the core of the novel? I’ve read novels about similar nomadic lifestyles before and I can’t imagine lacking such stability and never truly having a place to call ‘home’. It’s a shame that even their safe place to land is perverted into something dangerous when Liz is (assumedly) assaulted by Jerry.

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