Tomorrow, April 21, is Jeannette Walls’ 56th birthday. Unfortunately, in the literary world, her birthday will be overshadowed by the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I decided to honour Walls a day early by posting my review of her most recent novel, The Silver Star. (If you haven’t read her memoir, The Glass Castle, I would definitely recommend it.)
Having loved Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, I looked forward to reading her most recent novel. Unfortunately, her work of fiction is not of the same quality.
It is 1970. Two sisters, Liz, 15, and Jean, 12, are abandoned by their mother so they leave their home in California and take a bus to Byler, Virginia, to visit their Uncle Tinsley, their mother’s brother, who still lives in the ancestral home. The girls end up staying and taking part-time jobs working for Jerry Maddox, a foreman for the town’s major employer, who has no qualms about using his position to get people to do what he wants.
Jean, known as Bean, is the narrator. Is the name a derivation of the author’s name and is the relationship between Liz and Jean just a reworking of the Lori and Jeannette relationship described in The Glass Castle? Therein lies a problem I have with the novel: there are so many parallels between the memoir and the novel. Bean is like Jeannette in her adventurous spirit; Liz is like Lori, Jeanette’s bookish older sister. Charlotte, Liz and Bean’s mother, is a free spirit like Rose Mary Walls. Both Bean and Jeannette come to feel differently about their parents and the bohemian lifestyle imposed by them. Both books show girls surviving and thriving despite the adults around them.
The book is also derivative in that Bean is like an older version of Jean Louise (Scout) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. She is precocious and feisty and because of a court case learns about the unfairness of the world and the meaning of courage. Jerry Maddox, the novel’s villain, resembles Bob Ewell in Harper Lee’s novel: he does not hesitate to intimidate children. Aunt Al is the Calpurnia figure who serves as a surrogate mother.
Another issue with the book is the stereotypical characterization. Jerry Maddox, the villain, has no redeeming qualities. The book jacket describes him well: “a big man who bullies his workers, his tenants, his children, and his wife.” Everyone fears him because of his power in the small town. School officials are portrayed as clueless. For example, Miss Clay, a vice principal, chastises Bean for being unladylike (shades of Scout again) and even says, “’School officials never get to the bottom of these quarrels, and in my mind, we shouldn’t try’” (190). Aunt Al is too good to be believable: “Aunt Al also had it really tough . . . but she never complained. Instead, she was always talking about how blessed she was” (115).
There are symbols in the novel, but they lack subtlety. That the Silver Star is a symbol of courage is obvious so when Bean tries to give her father’s medal to a person, she is clearly recognizing that person’s bravary. The emus on a neighbour’s farm are symbols of outsiders. Liz especially identifies with them, describing them as “special” because they are “beautifully weird” (94) and even says, “She felt that she was sort of like an emu herself” (241).
I can see this book being used, like To Kill a Mockingbird, in junior classes in high school. It has a spunky narrator young adult readers will identify with as she struggles to find her place in a world which has not provided her with much stability. Like Bean, adolescents ask questions such as, “Was there such a thing as completely right and completely wrong” (86). The themes are developed clearly using symbols that students will be able to identify fairly easily. It is not a demanding read and begs comparison to Lee’s novel which virtually all students encounter in their literature classes.