Jeannette Walls set a high bar for the neglected-children memoir with her 2005 bestseller, “The Glass Castle.” Unrelentingly grim and almost unbearably poignant, it was a testament to hope for those growing up in desperate circumstances. Walls, a magazine and TV journalist, delved further into her family tree to tell the tale of her strong-willed grandmother in 2009’s “Half Broke Horses.”
With “The Silver Star,” Walls turns to fiction, much less successfully. Her story of two teenage sisters largely abandoned by their flighty mother is “Glass Castle”-lite; there’s the suspicion that several anecdotes edited out of her own story have simply been incorporated into this one. Write what you know and all that, but there isn’t much that feels fresh and new here.
The young narrator, Jean “Bean” Holladay, has few defining traits except spunk and adoration for her big sister, Liz, a nonconformist with a bent for tortured wordplay and Edgar Allan Poe. Left in a small California town when their mother flees for musical fame, they hop a bus to their ancestral home of little Byler, Va., where they reintroduce themselves to a host of surprised relatives and discover that Mom’s family used to practically own the town. Their bachelor uncle (gruff, eccentric) offers them shelter, and Bean’s aunt (warm, folksy) from her dead father’s family all but adopts her. This being 1970 in the South, there’s also a subplot about integration and racial disharmony that seems shoehorned in.
The story pokes along until the girls, eager to earn money, find themselves in the employ of town bully Jerry Maddox, doing clerical work and mysterious errands. We are meant to fear for their safety the minute Maddox rears his menacing head, but his cartoon villainy is Walls’ biggest misstep. After taking great pains to establish the sisters’ independence and smarts, she has them stubbornly disregard Maddox’s brutish behavior. After the inevitable terrible incident, Bean and Liz learn lessons in the big themes of social ostracism, revenge and justice, all administered by the good (and not-so-good) people of Byler.
On a stylistic note, Walls commits the common folly of adults who attempt to write as children. Her Bean is an exaggerated version of a teenager, by turns naively babyish and overly mature, and uses such anachronistic adjectives as “epically weird” and “killer.” Perhaps Walls can plumb another pocket of her history and use her own voice for a more compelling vision of resilience and survival.
Cynthia Dickison is a features designer for the Star Tribune.