THE SILVER STAR by Jeannette Walls is written with a light hand; the chapters are short, and the prose is direct and never fussy. The pace is brisk, and the novel reads quickly. Despite all that, there is a darkness to the book, an ever-present menace that, while never fully explored, makes for an unsettling story.
Jean “Bean” Holladay is 12 years old in 1970 and living in a small California town with her mother, Charlotte, and 15-year-old sister, Liz. Charlotte is an aspiring musician and artist who is more interested in “making magic” in her life than she is in providing her daughters the structure and support they need. During Charlotte’s frequent disappearances to Los Angeles or elsewhere in pursuit of her creative dreams, Bean and Liz are left alone, eating frozen chicken pot pies for every meal. But after Bean busts Charlotte in a huge and heartbreaking lie, Charlotte takes off, leaving the girls alone for so long that the police are called.
Before the authorities can step in, the sisters pack their bags and head east on a train bound for the Holladay hometown. They know that their mother’s brother, Uncle Tinsley, still lives in the mansion that has been in the family for generations back in Virginia and think it will be a safe place to stay until their mother returns to them. What they find in Byler, Virginia, is a shut-in hoarding uncle living on a run-down estate. The town is small and still centered on the mill that the Holladays opened decades ago and focused on the men fighting in Vietnam. Racial and political tensions complicate this picture of small traditional American life for Bean and Liz, who were raised in progressive, open-minded communities.
"THE SILVER STAR by Jeannette Walls is written with a light hand; the chapters are short, and the prose is direct and never fussy. The pace is brisk, and the novel reads quickly. Despite all that, there is a darkness to the book, an ever-present menace that, while never fully explored, makes for an unsettling story."
But it is not the tensions above that characterize THE SILVER STAR. Instead, the novel is concerned with the power, often unwarranted and dangerous, that adults yield over children and the moral decisions Bean makes --- and the moral opinions she forms --- as she comes of age. That malevolent power mostly resides with Jerry Maddox, the bullying figure brought in to manage the mill after the last Holladay (Uncle Tinsley) is bought out. Maddox has a reputation as a violent, mean and sexist man, but Bean and Liz work for him, without their uncle’s knowledge, to make money for school clothes and other essentials. His behavior is increasingly manipulative and frightening, but while Bean withdraws from his reach, Liz thinks she can handle him. However, when she finally confronts him on his actions, the result is a sexual assault. The story then shifts to one about the legal trial that Maddox faces and the social one Liz and her family faces, both with predictable outcomes.
THE SILVER STAR is interesting and readable, but Walls neglects to plumb the emotional or social depths as deeply as she could have. There is a lot going on in these pages: child neglect, mental illness, family secrets, socio-economic issues, war, race, sexuality and violence. However, none of these themes comes to fruition or resolution. In the end, the novel may be an examination of bad parenting and resilient children (as in her famous memoir, THE GLASS CASTLE) in a rich and complex setting. Bean is a compelling character, and it is fascinating to watch her ideas about both her mother and her sister change as the book progresses.
Still, the anxiety and pain, and the damages and destruction, that take place could have been written more strongly. If Walls had capitalized on those dark and emotional aspects of the book (and thus fleshing Charlotte and her family out a bit more), THE SILVER STAR may have been amazing instead of just really good.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 14, 2013
The Silver Star