“My sister saved my life when I was just a baby,” begins Jeanette Walls’ second novel. “Here’s what happened.” As in the author’s best-selling 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, Walls knows how to start — and tell — a story. There are many other similarities between these two books. Both begin with a senseless, almost life-threatening act that transpires out of extreme parental negligence. Both chart the peripatetic, dysfunctional lifestyle of a family as they ricochet across the United States in hopes of finding something better. And both are told with a balanced, yet whimsical, voice of insight and awareness but with little blame toward the individuals who are clearly at fault.
That said, with this novel, Walls takes considerable steps to fictionalize her autobiographical material, inventing a world all her own with a distinct cast of characters. Instead of four siblings, two headstrong sisters, “Bean” (or Jean) and Liz Holladay, are at the center of The Silver Star. And instead of bouncing from one mining town to the next, the sisters take an unexpected cross-country trip from the small town of Lost Lake in Southern California to the rural hills of Byler, Va.
The reader is pulled into this narrative by the plucky, infectious first-person voice of Bean, who serves as our lucid guide. A close literary cousin of Scout in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Bean is innocent and spirited, always up for an adventure and often reluctant to point the finger at her mother as the source of the difficulties in her life.
Bean, who is 12, and her 15-year-old sister, Liz, live on their own in a cinder-block bungalow after their mother, Charlotte, unexpectedly disappears. Within a week’s time, she sends along a letter, with $200, explaining that she needs a break from taking care of her two daughters and more time and energy to pursue her creative endeavors as a songwriter-singer-actress. (“Chins up and don’t forget to floss!” Charlotte writes at the end of her letter.)
In the meantime, Bean and Liz subsist on frozen chicken potpies and dodge questions from teachers and other locals about their mother’s whereabouts. When they realize their mother isn’t returning anytime soon, the sisters decide to take a bus to Virginia, where their estranged relatives live.
In Byler, Liz and Bean discover their recluse, widowed uncle residing in the dilapidated family home called Mayfield surrounded by overgrown gardens and towering trees.
“We heard the scraping and sliding of bolts, and the door opened,” writes Walls. “A man appeared holding a shotgun across his chest. He had rumpling graying hair, his hazel eyes were bloodshot, and he was wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of argyle socks.” Uncle Tinsley, a crusty curmudgeon, takes the girls in, and soon they settle into a new, steadier version of life. Bean learns the truth about her father, who was killed at gunpoint after standing up for her mother’s honor. He was also a decorated veteran of the Korean War, and Bean’s aunt gives her his Silver Star.
Despite the mother’s absence, all is seemingly well until Liz decides that they need jobs, so they can be more self-sufficient. After little success, they are hired by Mr. Maddox, the irascible foreman of the mill — Liz as his personal assistant and Bean to do random chores around the house. As the reader quickly learns, there’s been a deep-seated feud between the Holladays and Mr. Maddox for many years. Further painful complications and trials ensue.
As in The Glass Castle, Walls is particularly strong with details that vividly portray her settings and characters. The novel is set during the Nixon ’70s and Vietnam War, and the author adeptly evokes the tumultuous era in the narrative without letting it overwhelm the primary thread of Bean’s coming-of-age adventures. As a reader, you never forget where you are.
At times, exposition about familial history is flatly dispatched in dialogue, but for the most part, Walls delivers an entertaining, authentic narrative that animates the power of sisterhood in the face of difficult circumstances.
In the end, Bean and her voice supply the lively pulse for this novel. As readers, we root for her at every turn — with hopes that she will find a different way of life, that she’ll forge friendships at her new high school and that she and her sister will survive the trials of their traumatic childhoods.
The author writes toward the novel’s conclusion: “ ‘Don’t be afraid of your dark places,’ Mom told Liz. ‘If you can shine a light on them, you’ll find treasure there.’ ” Once again, Walls shines a light.
S. Kirk Walsh reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.