8/1/2013 - The Silver Star is like a mix between The Glass Castle and To Kill a Mockingbird — but not as good as either.
Of course, it’s harsh to measure any book against these two. But it’s hard not to compare Walls’ latest book to her first. The protagonist of The Silver Star, a 12-year-old girl named Bean Holladay — her real name is Jean, but her family calls her Bean — is very much like Jeanette Walls herself, whom we met in her memoir The Glass Castle. Bean is the outspoken younger sister of the reserved and responsible teenage Liz Holladay; they’re daughters of Charlotte, a neglectful musician who’s been waiting far too long for her big break.
Even the first lines are similar, filled with drama but told in the matter-of-fact tone of a child. (Castle’s is “I was on fire,” which describes Walls’s earliest memory; Star’s is “My sister saved my life when I was just a baby.”) But The Silver Star follows more of the traditional structure of a novel, with a clear climax and resolution. And for the most part it occurs in one place: Byler, Va., home of the once-thriving Holladay Textile mill.
Bean and Liz make their way here after their mother has a breakdown and leaves the two alone in their home in the Colorado Desert of southern California. It’s Liz’s idea to take a bus to Charlotte’s hometown in Virginia. She figures Charlotte’s family will take them in after learning they’re her daughters.
They do find their mother’s family in Byler, but things have changed. Their Uncle Tinsley lives in the old white-painted farmhouse that he and Charlotte grew up in, but the house and the uncle aren’t in the same shape Charlotte and Liz left them in (they left Byler before Bean was born). The house is run down and cluttered. Holladay Textiles, which at its peak was the family’s thriving mill business, has been taken over by Jerry Maddox, a bully of a businessman.
Bean and Liz find a home, metaphorically, in Byler — Bean more so than Liz. Bean finds out who her father was and discovers an extended family. Liz is a bit of an outcast, obsessed with words and Edgar Allen Poe. They both settle in with their uncle and find part-time jobs working for Maddox.
But everything goes up in shambles when an incident involving Maddox turns the town upside down. There’s a monkey trial of a court case that echoes the one in To Kill a Mockingbird — which Bean is reading in school — and forces Bean and Liz to face life’s injustices.
In The Silver Star, we meet and understand more characters than in The Glass Castle. This story has more characters (particularly adult ones) that the reader can count on.
I was happy to recognize the matter-of-fact voice that made The Glass Castle so compelling and memorable — Walls is genius at bringing you back to 12 years old. She writes like she’s talking to you, starting on the first page. Here, however, the point of view is consistently a child’s, which gives The Silver Star the feel of a young adult novel. It also lacks the depth of both her memoir and her second book, Half-Broke Horses. Star’s characters, though more likeable, are less dynamic than the real people in Castle. Part of Walls’ skill in writing Castle was her ability to depict complex people for whom the reader feels a mix of dislike and affection. There’s less of that here.
I never found myself bored while reading The Silver Star. I liked Bean, even if her character wasn’t anything new (Jeannette from Castle + Scout from Mockingbird = Bean from Star), and I liked the little twist at the end. But I’d had higher high hopes for this book. B — Kelly Sennott