My book group and I loved Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, and her partly-biographical novel based on her grandmother’s life, Half Broke Horses, so I was excited to read her first fully-fictional novel, The Silver Star, for the same book group. This moving, engrossing story of two girls abandoned by their mother didn’t disappoint.
Clever fifteen-year old Liz and her lively twelve-year old sister, Bean, live in a small town in California with their mother, Charlotte, in 1970. Charlotte loves her daughters but is flighty and irresponsible, often leaving the girls on their own for weeks at a time while she pursues a music career, but they manage OK, eating their frozen chicken pot pies every night while she is gone and hiding her absence from the neighbors and their school. One day, though, Charlotte decides she needs some time on her own and disappears for months. When the girls see a police car outside their house, they decide they need to leave before social services takes them away.
The two sisters catch a bus to Virginia, showing up on the doorstep of Uncle Tinsley, whom Liz only vaguely remembers; Bean was an infant when their mother left with them. He lives in the dilapidated old house where Charlotte grew up, in a small mill town in Virginia. Their family owned the mill – and much of the town – for many years, though Uncle Tinsley has now become an eccentric recluse. Though surprised by their arrival, he welcomes his nieces in and offers them some venison stew and their mother’s old bedroom.
The girls want to help with expenses, as it is clear Uncle Tinsley doesn’t have much money, but the town is pretty depressed and no one is hiring. They finally get jobs helping Jerry Maddox, the foreman at the mill (and the one responsible for kicking Tinsley out). Bean helps in the house with his wife and four children, and Liz becomes his personal assistant. When fall arrives, they start at the local high school, and Bean fits in pretty easily. Liz, who is more reserved than her sister and into poetry and Poe, has more trouble. When something horrible happens to Liz, things really fall apart, and she becomes very withdrawn and depressed.
I was pulled right into this compelling story and fell in love with the two sisters, especially outspoken, honest Bean. Walls believably recreates a small Virginia town in 1970, where the schools are just being integrated. The girls’ struggle to survive on their own and their mother’s abandonment – over and over – is heart-breaking, but their love for each other and their growing relationship with Uncle Tinsley add plenty of warmth and even some humor. If you read The Glass Castle, then parts of this novel do seem somewhat autobiographical, but Walls has also created a unique and realistic portrait of these two sisters and their struggles. I was rooting for Liz and Bean from beginning to end and thoroughly enjoyed their journey.
267 pages, Scribner
NOTE: Although the novel is meant for adults, older teens and young adults may enjoy it, with its teen protagonists; however, the book does tackle some difficult issues.