Jeanette Walls: The Silver Star (2013)

The Silver Star

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.

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40 thoughts on “Jeanette Walls: The Silver Star (2013)

  1. I was wondering where I’d heard the name of this author before, and then the book cover gave me the answer.

    I think you raise some excellent points with your commentary–abandonment aside–benign neglect beats crippling suffocation & dependency.

  2. I really loved her first book, The Glass Castle, too, and even now I have vivid memories of some of the things she wrote about–which is not something I can say about a lot of other books. I think I passed on her second book for the same reasons you did–somehow a fictionalized story didn’t have the same appeal. I will have to give this one a try. And I try and avoid reading Amazon reviews–I hate it when people slam books when they simply don’t like a character or for the things they do–do all characters need to be likable?

    • I’m always shocked when I see that kind of book slamming. “I can’t read a book about a bad mother”… and things like that. I can only assume these people are very intolerant in real life too.
      The way she depicts their mother is really interesting and made me think a lot.
      It’s well written and the characters are very engaging, but from a lot of the reviews I deduced that the earlier one Half Broke Horses might be even better. I’ll have to find out.

      • Obviously no one likes to hear about a bad mother (or father!), but even “bad” characters usually have something redeeming about them–once you begin peeling away the layers it often makes sense–even if it is not acceptable–if you know what I mean. I checked and the line at my library for this book is something like 170 requests long! Even with multiple copies–will have to wait on this and look for a used copy perhaps.

        • One cannot say she’s not a popular author. 170 requests, amazing.
          I see why because she writes so well you really think you’ve been there too.
          I started to question her “bad parenting” after I saw those many negative reviews. I totally know what you mean about making sense.

  3. Glad to hear you liked The Glass Castle, Caroline, because I thought it might be over the top.
    I tend to avoid Amazon reviews because they often have spoilers.
    It’s a bit harder to love a book when the characters are unlikable, but they can be so interesting!

    • I loved The Glass castle and thought it was very realistic, not over the top at all. I know some people who grew up like that.
      In this case it was easy to love because the mother isn’t that unlikable, she’s just nuts. And the girls and everyone else, with the exception of that guy who attempts a rape, are lovable.

  4. Nice review, Caroline! I discovered Jeannette Walls by accident and totally loved ‘The Glass Castle’. I have ‘Half Broke Horses’ and I hope to read it sometime as it is based on her grandmother’s life. ‘The Silver Star’ seems to be similar to ‘The Glass Castle’ in many ways. Glad to know that you liked it. Sorry to know that many readers posted negative reviews of the book in Amazon. I don’t know whether we should dislike a book because one of the characters in it is not likeable. I think a flawed character makes a book more interesting :) I remember reading a Margaret Atwood story called ‘Happy Endings’ in which she gives a simple happy version initially and then makes it complex with every new version. The happy version went like this – “John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up. Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story.” Though most of us strive for this kind of life in the real world, I found the complex versions of the story more interesting than this happy version. I think that is the reason Jeannette Walls’ books are fascinating.

    • I agree, she’s a very fascinating writer. The Silver Star is similar but small scale, it covers a much shorter time and the girls are on thier own most of the time. Some readers felt it should be labelled YA but that is an odd idea. Not everybook with young charcaters is automatically a YA novel.
      I’ve read that Atwood story a while ag and think it has an excellent premise. The other, not so happy versions, are more intriguing.
      I think I should read Half Broke Horses.

  5. Sounds really riveting. Your mention of the Amazon reviews is not surprising but still puzzles me. I do not really understand why people do not like books because of flawed characters. People who do questionable and even downright evil things, but are still sympathetic in some ways, are such an important component to literature.

    • I liked it, löied the way it captured smalltown life in the South in the 70s.
      I think that’s an important point your raising. This isn’t an evil, despicable charcater, just a very flawed and dsyfunctional one and also someone who suffers quite a bit because she knows she is inadequate.

  6. This sounds interesting and I’m drawn to family stories. I wasn’t abandoned as a child, but my father was hardly around and my mother was ill most of my childhood so I was on my own to a certain degree from the age of 5. Obviously they supported me financially, but I had to grow up quickly. I think it has helped me as an adult. However, I can’t say the same about my brother. Guess it depends on personalities as well.

    • That is true, as well, not everyone would handle being on their own too early so well.
      In the novel it is harder for the older girl as she is the one who takes care of the younger, so you could say that the narrator, Bean, wasn’t all that alone.

    • Thanks, Diane. Glad to hear you liked it too.
      The resilience of these two girl was something I enjoyed a lot. They have guts and strong charcaters but to some degree that was also due to the upbringing.

  7. I’m not sure I’d like this.
    “Giving autonomy” is sometimes a nice way for parents to ease the guilt when they burden their children with tasks that belong to adults. (Like watching a younger sibling every day)
    I think children should only have to care about school, friends, sports and growing up

    • There are better ways to do it, that’s for sure but she had reasons. She was too young, the husband walked out on her and she accidentally got pregnant with the second and was then driven aways as thw whole village called her a slut. Being a young single mother in the 60s/70s in a smalltown must have been hard.

    • That’s true and when it is a topic I like, I don’t mind some repetition. If you haven’t read there and are looking for a great memoir, The Glass Castle is well worth reading.

  8. I just finished reading a book about a bonkers mother too – Jeanette Winterson’s Why be Happy When You Can be Normal? (the title was her mother’s response when a teenage Jeanette said she was happy being lesbian). I can’t imagine not liking a book because I didn’t like the characters or thought mothers shouldn’t be portrayed as bad. Bizarre…

    • Very bizarre, I agree.
      I have read half of Winterson’s book, had to abandon it as it was too close to home but what I read of it so far was amazing. I’ll have to look for your review.
      I really need to start it all over and read it. As far as I remember she was rather a mean mother.

      • Yes, definitely a mean mother, and set on imposing her strange religious views on her daughter. It was very well written, but somehow at the end I still didn’t really feel as if I knew the mother, and the father was more or less a non-character. I’m not sure if it was a fault with the writing, or if it simply reflects the author’s bewilderment growing up with parents she didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand her.

        • Those parts I read were almost like a caricature. I think she writes it deliberatley like this, to some extent it’s way to keep it at arms length.
          It must have been hard revisiting her past.

  9. When I first read your summary, I instantly hate the mother but your later explanation hits the nail too. There are also worst mothers even though they stayed with the children.

    My co-work is a perefect example, her mother controls her like she is still a kid…she even determines whether she can work or not. I remembered how jelous she was when she knew I can easily go to any rock concert even when my mom was still alive…she is never allowed to go to concerts and must be home before 9pm. Scary mother.

    • She sounds like a very domineering mother. It’s hard to live with someoe like that.
      I had a similar reaction when I read the book at first. I immediately thought “What an awful mother” but pn the other hand, the girls were so sztrong and independent. Despite of her flaws, she raised the well.

  10. I had heard of Half Broke Horses, but not The Silver Star. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
    It sounds like Jeanette Walls has developed a character who does something unlikeable (leaving her children) and made her sympathetic and even won you over. It takes a gifted writer to accomplish that.

    Also, I’m just wondering out loud if people would have been as offended if the character was the father who left the girls rather than the mother.

    • I think they would have been far less offended but if he was a single parent they would take it badly as well.
      But if it’s a couple and the mother leaves it’s far less accepted than when the father leaves.
      I think she did a great job in making her sympathetic but not everyone felt like I did.

  11. I loved The Glass Castle so was most intrigued to read this review. My goodness, it’s similar in many ways, isn’t it? I have to say that I tend towards Emma’s comment and take a dim view of parents who are too much children themselves to do the adult tasks with any sort of stamina. It can have appalling effects. It seems to be Walls’ thing to defend this sort of parenting, and yet the fact she writes about it over and over again suggests to me that she hasn’t got past it emotionally herself yet. But what my feelings are about that sort of parenting doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the way I read the book. What I would find hard would be to read The Glass Castle all over again, with some variations. Still, she IS a good writer.

    • Of course, I’m sure that type of parenting has horrible effects as well. It’s very similar to The Glass Castle, that’s for sure but i still liked it.
      I wonder if she got past it or not. I read it rather like coming from someone who looks back and finds it all relatively funny now that it’s over.
      But the mother in the book infuriated me as well, I just started to compare her to my own and was wondering if, after all, they weren’t better off.

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