Review: The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls
Jeannette Walls’ latest novel, The Silver Star, opens with Jean, AKA Bean, recounting the story of how her sister, Liz, saved her life when she was only an infant. Bean (aka Jean) and Liz are sisters, one twelve and the other fifteen, who have faced life as a team. They’ve always stuck together giving one another the stability that their mother did not or could not provide for them. When things got bad in one place, their mother would slide out of town in the dead of night taking her little girls with her.
Bean and Liz, one twelve and the other fifteen, are sisters who have faced life as a team. They’ve always stuck together giving one another the stability that their mother did not or could not provide for them. In one of their quick exits out of town, a problem arose because mom in her dash toward freedom, had stashed things in the trunk leaving her infant child in a carrier on the roof. Dash, rush, run - oops - she forgot the minor issue of said infant left in a carrier on top of the car. Three year old Liz begins screaming her baby sister’s name and pointing at the roof. It took a some time to communicate to the manic mother the state of affairs. She slammed on the brakes, the carrier slid onto the hood, baby’s strapped in, so no harm’s done.
Their mother loved to tell the story. She thought it was hilarious. Neither child saw the humor. Mom’s version tilted itself in her favor, as always.
Mom was going through a rough period at the time of the near fatal incident. She had a lot on her mind -- craziness, craziness craziness, the girls would say when hearing the story time after time.
Like Half Broke Horses by the same author, The Silver Star is considered fiction, but draws heavily on Walls' own family. The first work of Walls I read was The Glass Castle. It’s the biographical account of her wildly eccentric family, one that defines disfunction. Her father dreamed of building glass castles for his family to live in while he traipsed from one town to the next with them in tow, often leaving under the cloak of night to avoid paying bills--they had no money, so escape was the quick solution while he wove tales of magical new opportunities that would surely appear soon.
Knowing of Walls’ amazing personal story, The Silver Star reads for me more like an embellished biographical account than fiction.
All the elements are there from her own life: manic parents, poverty, close-knit siblings who watch one another’s backs, late night moves from one situation to the next that only differ in location and finally the will to follow one’s dreams and break from the road to destruction the family had laid for Walls and her siblings.
Bean and Liz knew their mother was a dreamer who lived in her own manufactured world. It’s the Vietnam Era where anything seemed possible to their mother who spun her own dreams of glass castles. Her talent simply lay in wait for discovery. Her plan was that she would help discovery along by disappearing for days or weeks to try for her place in the L.A sun as a singer, a backup singer, a musical goddess or whatever came her way. The girls would be left with enough money to take care of necessities, pot pies in the freezer and school to attend. Mom always returned until she didn’t.
Bean’s twelve going on twenty and Jean’s fifteen with maturity below her chronological age.
When their mom’s been gone for a very long time, the pot pies are nearly gone and money’s running low, the girls come down the street after school one day only to spy a police car at their house. Bean knows what’s up. Someone’s on to the truth of their living situation and an officer’s there to take them somewhere safe. Bean’s not having any part of this nonsense. The sisters hide and wait for the officer to leave.
They know he’ll be back. It’s only a matter of time before they’re in custody.
Bean knows they have an uncle in Byler, VA. Their mother’s spoken of her brother with whom she’s estranged from. Bean knows he lives in an old antebellum mansion, a family inheritance. It’s the only hope she sees for she and Liz. They return to the house, gather the small amount of money they have, some of their clothing and head for the closest bus station. They’re on their way to Virginia where truth and hope await them.>
I love this story of fearlessness and redemption.
The uncle who at first seems curmudgeonly opens his home, arms and heart to his nieces. What is his, he gladly shares with the girls. But, it’s not all easy and smooth in Byler. There’s a dark side to the life Bean and Liz traversed the country to find. The mill where residents of Byler work, which they depend on for survival, has a foreman who cares little about right or wrong. He’s a sociopathic personality whose only concern is what he desires and the hell with everyone else. The plot thickens when Liz accepts a job as a babysitter for his kids.
The family's antebellum mansion gives Bean and Liz a sense of pride in family, themselves and newly found stability. Life is good for the girls regardless of Liz’s employer. Liz acquires emus that she cares for with the same protective force and love she lavished on her baby sister. They become a symbol for Liz herself. The emus Bean thinks want to fly they just don’t have wings, something like Liz herself. Liz readies herself for a metaphorical flight, freedom and self respect as she protects and loves the emus. She therefore learns to protect and love herself as well.
Bean discovers the identity of her father in Byler, meets his family and learns of her father’s gallantry. He earned a Silver Star in Korea which only goes to those who have shown the greatest of heroism and selflessness while in action against an enemy of the United States.
The Silver Star awarded to her father becomes a symbol for Bean herself.
She stands firm in her own gallantry against those who are stronger and without scruples. She rises against all odds to make her way to family, to find love and to hold herself firm against what many would find overwhelming.
The sordid reality of a tough life, a mother whose enticing dreams left her children bereft and two children fighting to gain a foothold into a new life make The Silver Star a book for those who believe that goodness and righteousness can conquer the most rigorous of obstacles. For those who treasure a book that leaves them feeling uplifted, The Silver Star’s for you.
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.