Jeannette Walls has written a heartbreaking and redemptive novel about an intrepid girl who challenges the injustice of the adult world—a triumph of imagination and storytelling.
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.
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.
In The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls we meet 12 year old Jean "Bean" Holladay, her 15 year old sister Liz, and their mother Charlotte. Charlotte, an irresponsible mother and aspiring singer, leaves the girls on their own for a bit too long in a small town in California. When Bean sees a police car outside their house and senses that trouble may be ahead, the girls take a bus to Byler, Virginia, the small town where their mother grew up and where their Uncle Tinsley still resides in a decaying mansion. Circumstances surrounding their unstable mother result in the girls living with Uncle Tinsley, who offers them some measure of security, for the school year.
The Holladay family used to own the cotton mill, but their glory days and wealth are long past. Knowing that they need jobs to earn some money for clothes, the girls eventually find themselves working odd jobs for the mill foreman, Jerry Maddox, a controlling bully. Bean also gets to know her deceased father's side of the family, where the inspiration for the title of the story is found. Once school starts, Bean finds herself trying to adjust and fit in while Liz is leaning toward nonconformity.
Maddox is an evil, one dimensional character and it is clear right from the start that he will mean trouble. What was surprising was that Wall's didn't have the girls show the same kind of canny ability Liz had when they had a man on the bus bothering them. The Silver Star is set in 1970 during racial integration of the schools, which is a secondary story in the novel, and the Vietnam War. The novel mentions To Kill a Mockingbird, and takes some inspiration from it, as well as Wells' own personal background, especially in the character of Bean and her mother.
Walls is known for her best selling memoir, The Glass Castle, and a true story about her grandmother, Half Broke Horses. Walls did many things right in The Silver Star, her first novel, addressing universal themes like societal injustice, peer pressure, bullies, and abuse. However most of the characters weren't fleshed out beyond Bean, and would have benefited from more development. It did grip my attention, though, and had me racing to find out what happened to the girls.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Scribner via Netgalley for review purposes.