Bottom Line: Simple story with an adorable heroine
“It is 1970 in a small town in California. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister, Liz, is fifteen when their artistic mother, Charlotte, a woman who “found something wrong with every place she ever lived,” takes off to find herself, leaving her girls enough money to last a month or two. When Bean returns from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz decide to take the bus to Virginia, where their Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that’s been in Charlotte’s family for generations.An impetuous optimist, Bean soon discovers who her father was, and hears many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Because money is tight, Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town—a big man who bullies his workers, his tenants, his children, and his wife. Bean adores her whip-smart older sister—inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, nonconformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz.”
Thoughts: Jeannette Walls is back with another story utilizing her background with abusive adults. In The Silver Star, Liz and Bean Holladay find themselves at the mercy of their loving but whimsical mother. After a longer-than-normal absence by their mother, the girls find it prudent to decamp to their uncle’s house across the country in bucolic Virginia. As they settle into this new lifestyle, so very different from the gypsy existence with their mother, they learn more about their family and about themselves. Unfortunately, their well-meaning attempt to earn some spending money has tragic consequences that forces the girls to grow up in ways they never had to do before with their flighty mother.
While the tragedy that befalls Liz is heartbreaking, it is Bean who is the true heart of the novel. For being twelve years old, she has a surprisingly strong sense of self that protects her when things in Virginia gets tough. She also has an immensely well-defined moral code that allows her to see through any situation and recognize it for what it is. While she remains one of the most pleasant girls in the novel, her total embrace of her extended family is an agonizing reminder that for all her optimism, she is still a little girl desperately seeking stability and love. She both amuses and engenders a mothering instinct as her entire attitude is refreshingly innocent in spite of everything she experiences.
There are no major surprises in The Silver Star. Everything that befalls Liz is obvious from the moment Jerry Maddox enters the scene. That does not prevent the story from providing chills and other roiling emotions. Even more upsetting is the suggestion that although the novel is set in the 1970s, things have not changed enough in the legal system and in a small-town Southern mentality to make this a truly historical novel.
Ms. Walls successfully captures the fear, the apathy, and the unwillingness to get involved that usually occur in such situations, and a reader cannot help but feel indignant at such behavior or lack thereof. Even though the entire story is somewhat timeworn, the message remains important, and a reader’s reactions even more so. Bean’s charm softens the repetitiveness and unoriginality of the story, as she ambles through life making friends, loving family, and listening to her moral compass. We all need to learn some lessons from Miss Bean Holladay.