"The Silver Star"

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Bean, 12, and Liz, 15, are the daughters of Charlotte Holladay, an emotionally unstable  single mother trying to carve out a career in the music industry. Charlotte habitually goes away for days at a time leaving the girls to fend for themselves, but this time it's different - she's been gone long enough for the neighbours to get concerned and contact the police. The girls decide their best option is to travel across the country to the only family they know about, an uncle still living in their mother's childhood home.

They leave a note for Charlotte, buy bus tickets, and head east from California. In Virginia they meet their Uncle Tinsley, who is not happy to see them but eventually lets them stay. Liz and Bean look for odd jobs to help earn their keep and begin working for Jerry Maddox, a man who turns out to be the town bully. Their misplaced trust in him lands them in court, in a situation from which it appears there can be no escape.

The life the two girls live with their mother is reminiscent of the author's own life as she tells it in her autobiography The Glass Castle. Charlotte's neglect as a mother might seem far-fetched if you haven't read about Jeannette Walls's own childhood and the overwhelming neglect she and her siblings suffered at the hands of her parents. The nearly adult self-sufficiency shown by Liz and Bean might seem unrealistic too, except that the author's own life proves that it's possible to grow up while you're still a child.

Because The Glass Castle was so good, I find myself measuring her other books against it and unfortunately they come out lacking. I love the clarity and the pragmatic tone of her writing, but to me both The Silver Star and her previous book, Half Broke Horses, fail to meet the standard of the first one. Her own personal story is so complex, so fascinating, so stunning, that I can't imagine any fiction coming close.

I did like the The Silver Star's story as far as it went, but I thought it felt unfinished. There is so much more I want to know, questions I want answered. The end of the book seemed more like a middle to me. The plot line that did get resolved, I found unbelievable. It was a complicated situation, fixed too conveniently and in a manner that logically should have had legal repercussions, and yet did not. An explanation was given but it was weak and the story lost credibility.

The title refers to a medal Bean's father received while in the armed forces. It's mentioned only a couple of times, making it an odd choice for the title, but maybe it had more significance in the author's thinking than in what came across on the pages. In her defense, it was a medal given for courage and courage is a major theme in the book.

The storyline, the personal experience the author brings to it, and her terrific not-quite-spare writing style should have added up to a great read. I'm disappointed it fell short of that. 

I received this book from Simon and Schuster as a winner of a First Reads giveaway on Goodreads.


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