Rating: B+/ Two bright and resourceful sisters, twelve-year-old Bean (real name Jean) and fifteen-year-old Liz, are abandoned by their flaky mother Charlotte in a small California apartment while she goes out to ‘find herself’ and make it big as a songwriter and musician. When Charlotte doesn’t return for months at a time and the social workers get involved. Bean and Liz take a bus to their eccentric Uncle Tinsley’s decaying mansion in Byler, Virginia, where he reluctantly takes them in.
The year is is 1970, and racial tensions are high. Bean and Liz innocently become witness to racism, injustice, and the misuse of power, and Liz retreats into herself when the town’s richest and most feared man, Jerry Maddox, tries to rape her in the back of a car. Wise beyond her years and extraordinarily brave for a girl of such a young age, Bean tries to bring her sister back from the brink of despair, and discovers some things about good, evil, and the complexities of adulthood in the process.
The Silver Star bears some similarities to the author’s earlier memoir, The Glass Castle, including irresponsible parents and children living a semi-nomadic lifestyle, but The Silver Star concentrates less on the parent-child relationship between Charlotte and her daughters, and more about the two girls navigating a racially divided small Southern town in the 70’s which is pushed under the thumb of a unhinged bully with a hard-on for power. Maddox proves to be a terrifying (and thoroughly reprehensible) antagonist, and one for whom readers will eagerly anticipate his comeuppance. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity regarding the other characters. Some I loved (Bean, Liz, Aunt Al,) some I had mixed feelings about (Uncle Tinsley, Clarence) and a few seriously needed to be bitch-slapped as far as I was concerned.
It’s no accident that Harper Lee’s much-loved novel To Kill a Mockingbird is featured in this story; both books involve social injustice, bright young girls with a lot of grit coming of age in small Southern Towns during times of great racial tension, and, to quote Dumbledore in Harry Potter, finding themselves in a situation where they are forced to choose between what is right and what is easy. However, I’ve never been a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird (partially for the reasons the black students have issues with it in this book), and really enjoyed this one (until the ending, which I found a little forced.) Bean is such a strong character, I had a huge amount of respect for her, even though I couldn’t see anything of myself in her.
The narrative is a pretty straightforward one, carried out entirely from Bean’s perspective, and even though I thought her voice was a little precocious for a twelve-year-old (which is to be expected when adults write from the viewpoint of children,) the book was mostly very believable, filled with rich regional and period flavor. Instead of wallowing in melodrama and self-pity, The Silver Star keeps up a hopeful tone and a snappy pace, offering a sympathetic look into the mind and heart of the indomitable Bean.
In Jeanette Walls, we are offered a writer who is as pragmatic and fearless as her heroine. Unafraid to go into unpleasant territory, Walls nevertheless ensures that her book remains compulsively readable and highly enjoyable. You can’t help but root for these two sisters who have survived an erratic upbringing to become highly determined to keep each other safe. If Liz is like an emu (the ugly, magical birds she comes to love deeply,) Bean is like a tiger; and what she lacks in a tiger’s stature, she makes up for in spirit. You’ll leave this book with both girls tucked snugly in your heart.