I still remember when Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle came out. I devoured it and absolutely loved it. I was a bit disappointed to find out her second book, Half Broke Horses, wasn’t a memoir but a novel. I bought it but never read it. Last week I got her latest, The Silver Star, as a present and just finished it yesterday.
If you know Jeanette Walls, The Silver Star will not surprise you. Like in her memoir we are introduced to some really bad parenting, children who have to cope on their own, a murky family history and abusive grown-ups.
Some writers always return to familiar territory, mining their lives and telling a similar story over and over again. I don’t mind that when it is well done. And Jeanette Walls writes well. Her writing has an almost cinematic quality, her way of conjuring up a scene is very powerful.
Bean and Liz are 12 and 15 respectively when her single mum has a break down and leaves the two girls alone, with just about enough money for a month. Their mother is 36 but still a wannabe singer/songwriter/actress. Nothing she tries ever seems to work out and all of her plans invariably end in disaster. That she disappears for a couple of days is nothing new, but for a whole month is a novelty. When social services turn up in front of the house, the girls decide to go to their mother’s hometown and see if their uncle will take them in.
Their mother is originally from a small town in Virginia. The family used to be very rich but all they have left is a decaying mansion. The girls don’t know why their mother left right after Bean was born. They also don’t know who their respective fathers are.
When they turn up on uncle Tinsley’s doorstep he isn’t too thrilled at first, but eventually he gives in and lets the girls stay with him. It turns out that Bean and Liz really love the small town and settle in quickly. They make new friends, get to know Bean’s father’s family and have a great time. Their mother comes to visit but it ends in a huge drama.
When the local bully and mill supervisor Maddox tries to rape Liz, things escalate.
The book is set in the 70s; the Vietnam war and racial tensions are important topics. But gender is maybe even more important. There is an instance in which To Kill a Mocking Bird is mentioned and that’s no coincidence. There is a parallel to the novel, as in The Silver Star there is also a trial. Only with a very different outcome. Afro-American’s are still not treated like white people but women are treated even worse.
What I really liked about this book is what it says about parenting. It is obvious that Bean’s and Liz’s mother is incapable of taking care of her girls but despite this I was wondering how bad her parenting really was. She is often absent, not there when they need her, she’s “bonkers” as both girls say but she is kind and raises girls with a very strong self-esteem. I don’t try to say it’s OK for parents to just abandon their children but as a matter of fact, they were quite capable of taking care of themselves and if she’d been there, the attempted rape would still have happened. She is far from an ideal mother, she can’t cope and went through a lot of awful things but both girls are strong and very resilient. Many children who have parents who never abandon them, and provide for them materially, nevertheless crush their children’s self-esteem, abuse and neglect them emotionally. I find that far worse.
I saw that this book has received a lot of negative reviews on amazon (A lot of readers hated it because of the mother. I really wonder if they are all that perfect). Sure, it’s similar to her other books but I thought it was very enjoyable. It’s warmhearted and humorous. I loved the two girls who are very different, their uncle, and even the mother is fun as a fictional character. I’m glad I’ve got Half Broke Horses already. I’ll certainly read it soon.