Readers of Jeannette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle will recognize some of the pivotal elements in her debut novel, The Silver Star. Twelve-year-old Bean is a feisty, precocious character reminiscent of Walls's self-portrayal; her older sister, Liz, is a prodigy who voraciously reads the classics and skillfully evades a child kidnapper when she and Bean are traveling.
Bean and Liz are adept at taking care of themselves--a skill they've been forced to learn since their mother is largely absent. With aspirations to be a star on par with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Charlotte Halladay is constantly chasing her dream in Los Angeles, leaving her little time or energy for parenthood. She also has a penchant for choosing boyfriends who will betray her, whom she derisively refers to as "tirekickers." When Charlotte has a nervous breakdown and flees to Los Angeles for an even longer period than usual, Liz and Bean--fearful the police will try to force them into foster care--decide to go to visit their uncle Tinsley in a small town in Virginia. What follows involves the girls' attempts to integrate into an unfamiliar rural community, discover their family past and contend with a trauma that threatens to undermine these efforts.
Their well-meaning but unstable mother--who gets some of the novel's best lines--mirrors in some ways Walls's own intellectually rebellious, voluntarily homeless mother. Her voice, along with Bean's, may be the greatest strength of The Silver Star. "Don't be afraid of your dark places," Charlotte advises her children. "If you can shine a light on them, you'll find treasure there."
Though Byler, Va., is a tiny town, financially dependent on its cotton mill, the political conflagrations of the early 1970s are constantly felt. Bean and Liz arrive just in time for the first year of racial integration at their school, while the specter of the Vietnam War looms over the families whose sons are serving overseas. Walls's novel is therefore as much about the period and its effects in a remote, little-discussed area of America as it is about two sisters struggling to come of age without parental support and against all odds. --Ilana Teitelbaum
Shelf Talker: The author of The Glass Castle shifts to fiction, with a story of two sisters whose eccentric mother leaves them to fend for themselves.