‘The Silver Star,’ by Jeanette Walls

July 26, 2013

In this novel, two sisters — Liz , 15 , and Bean , 12 — are first seen in their Southern California desert home, working their way through a mountain of chicken pot pies. Their mother, Charlotte , who imagines herself a creative genius in a world of Philistines, has gone off to L.A. to further her music career. The girls use the couple of hundred dollars she left for them to live on, but inevitably the grocer notices and reports them to a social worker. The girls think hard. All they have is each other, and they can’t bear to be separated. As a last resort, Liz remembers that their mother has family in a small mill town in rural Virginia and that they should have an uncle still living there. To avoid an orphanage or worse, they use the last of their chicken pie money to take the bus to Virginia .

Their mother hated her home town and all the people in it, but the girls find a new world: small, cozy and enclosed. The mill was owned for years by their uncle’s family. Their family home is a mansion with a name, and the town’s main street bears their family name.

But their reception is cold: “Get off my property,” their Uncle Tinsleysnarls, brandishing his shotgun. When the girls introduce themselves, he treats them to a few well-chosen words about their mother. The first night he makes them sleep in the barn, but later he gives them a wing of the house to live in. He’s a crusty old widower living close to the ground, and their diet changes from chicken pot pies to venison stew.

Their mother had a history in this town. Her first husband left her, and Bean’s father was a disgrace, a mill worker who shot someone. Bean discovers the paternal side of her family: a motherly woman named Aunt Al and her Cousin Joe, who adds to the family income by scavenging — some would say “stealing” — fruits and vegetables from other people’s gardens. And there are a few other cousins and a grouchy Uncle Clarence. They are exotic and fascinating in Bean’s eyes, because they make up a genuine family as opposed to the jerry-built structure their mother called “the Tribe of Three.”

Are the girls going to stay in this rinky-dink but charming town? The tone shifts as the girls decide they need to get jobs to buy clothes for school. They go to work for Jerry Maddox, a new foreman at the mill. As Bean remembers him later, “Maddox was a troublemaker even for the police, filing law suits and complaints, evicting tenants, riding the men at the mill, and putting moves on women all over town.” In fact, Maddox is a monster, as is their mother, and the girls must fight hard against these two to keep their bearings.

Readers are bound to notice that “The Silver Star” echoes Jeannette Walls’s earlier, frightening memoir of abuse, “The Glass Castle.” The poverty, the hunger, the plain nuttiness of adult authority figures are here again. But “The Silver Star” is more forgiving. In the middle of the novel, two emus turn up, and Liz, whose suffering and quirky mind have brought her dangerously close to mental illness, falls utterly in love with them. The emus seem close to how the author wants us to see Liz and Bean: two odd birds, peculiar and a little bit strange but innately lovable, doing their best in a world in which half the adults are scarcely human.

But the other half of the adult world seems kind enough, even insightful. Uncle Tinsley stoically bears the loss of his fortune and his mill, and across town Aunt Al holds her family together despite serious poverty. In such a place, do two defenseless girls have a fighting chance? Maybe that’s why “The Silver Star” is fiction and “The Glass Castle” the demoralizing truth.

See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.

THE SILVER STAR

By Jeanette Walls

Scribner.
267 pp. $26

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