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The Silver Star

By Jeannette Walls

Scribner

269 pages, $26

By Karen Brady

News Book Reviewer

There is nothing subtle about Jeannette Walls’ latest novel, an obvious and often heavy-handed offering called “The Silver Star.”

But – like Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” and her first novel, “Half-Broke Horses” – “The Silver Star” has the selfsame hardscrabble pluck that landed those earlier books on America’s best-seller lists for a very long time.

Plus, this time ’round, Walls does not confine herself to her own grim story or that of her mustang-breaking grandmother, Lily. This time, Walls gives us the completely fictional Bean, a 12-year-old akin to Frankie in Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” or Scout in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the latter a book Bean makes sure to tell us she has read:

“The best part, I thought, wasn’t the stuff about race but the way Scout and the two boys snooped around the big haunted house where the scary recluse lived. That really reminded me of being a kid.”

Neither Bean nor her older sister Liz has much chance of “being a kid,” not in the Peyton Place-like circumstances that comprise their lives. In fact, before “The Silver Star” ends, they will deal with abandonment, bullying, sexual harassment and abuse not to mention having to fend for themselves, at times worrying where they will next eat and sleep and how to pay for such privilege.

We meet them in Lost Lake, Calif., where their mother, Charlotte Holladay – a sometime singer, songwriter, actress – leaves them one time too many times to pursue her dreams, and the girls, afraid of being separated by child protective services, set off, alone and by bus, for the Byler, Va., farm of Charlotte’s brother, a loner known as Uncle Tinsley.

“Mom always said her big break was right around the corner,” Bean explains their predicament. “Mom always talked about how the secret to the creative process was finding the magic. That, she said, was what you needed to do in life as well … ‘Find the magic … And if you can’t find the magic … then make the magic.’ ” And Bean and Liz do.

The year is 1970. Nixon is president. The Vietnam War is still on. Feminism’s second wave is holding strong, and forced integration is about to take place at Bean and Liz’s new school, Byler High. Even Charlotte’s childhood home has changed since the days when Charlotte’s family owned the local cotton mill – and Charlotte had yet to be known as “Charlotte the Harlot.” A woman who gives Charlotte’s girls a ride from the Byler bus station to the Holladay estate tells them:

“… twenty years ago there was always something going on there – oyster roasts, Christmas parties, cotillions, moonlight horseback rides, Civil War costume balls. In those days everyone was hankering for an invitation there.

All us girls would have given our left arm to be Charlotte Holladay. She had everything.”

Now, Charlotte’s girls discover, the family farmstead (known as Mayfield) is in a state of disrepair: “The paint was peeling, the dark green roof had brown rust stains, and brambly vines crawled up the walls … We climbed the wide steps to the porch, and a blackbird flew out of a broken window.”

Walls does well with description and dialogue, and she has done her homework here on the era. Bean, in addition, is a worthy follower of Frankie/Scout – ever honest and optimistic and, best of all, brave. Witty too, and wonderfully unaware of it.

“Mom was still pretty for a mom,” she observes early on. “Any lawyer who couldn’t afford a secretary to keep his office neat must be honest,” she tells us later.

Uncle Tinsley, alarmed at first by the sudden appearance of his nieces, rises (reluctantly) to the occasion. Charlotte herself comes back to Byler briefly, presaging some of what is to come with this exchange in Bean’s presence:

“ ‘Being back here is all too dark and strange,’ Mom said. ‘I feel the old chill. Mother was always so cold and distant. She never truly loved me.

All she cared about were appearances and being proper. And Father loved me but loved me for the wrong reasons. It was very inappropriate.’

‘Charlotte, that’s nonsense,’ Uncle Tinsley said. ‘This was always a warm warm house. You were Daddy’s little girl – at least until your divorce – and you loved it. Nothing inappropriate ever happened under this roof.’ ”

“That’s what we had to pretend. We had to pretend it was perfect. We were all experts at pretending.’ ”

Yes, Walls tends to go all Hallmark movie here (Anne Heche would be just right in the role of Charlotte) but she is dead-on when “The Silver Star” grows a great deal more serious. Bean and Liz are victims of family and circumstance throughout the novel but, when one of them is personally violated, all of the other humiliations and issues fall aside.

Bean, who has discovered her late father’s identity and become close to his kin, consults the Silver Star he earned in the military: “I wondered what advice my dad would give me if he were around … I knew the one thing Charlie Wyatt would never do. He would never pretend nothing happened.”

Little is as easy as it often seems here, Walls presenting everything so simply – in black and white, with no gray. The plot’s prime offender is Mr. Maddox, the current mill foreman, a big bully of a man with both a mean streak and a temper.

An argument he has with Bean about a newfangled product – Pringles – is itself worth the price of “The Silver Star.” After Mr. Maddox tells Bean, “They’re just out, and they’re better then Cheetos,” and Bean tries one and says, “This tastes funny,” Mr. Maddox goes on a tirade calling Pringles “far superior in every way” and “the wave of the future.” What’s more, he declares, “you don’t get that orange crap on your fingers.”

Walls’ way with levity in the midst of gravity is a winner here – as is Bean. Liz is but a shadow in comparison – a girl who loves Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” and speaks in a sort of Jabberwocky whenever (as is often) her world becomes tense.

Charlotte, their errant, New-Agey mother, is splendidly irresponsible – and Charlie Wyatt’s family includes the memorable Uncle Clarence, a Southerner still skeptical about school integration: “It’s the doing of those damned Harvards … They started this war and told our boys to fight it, then they changed their minds about the war and went around spitting on our boys for serving their country. And now the Harvards want to come down here and tell us how to run our schools …”

Uncle Clarence is married to the magnanimous Aunt Al who famously says, “Wondering why you survived doesn’t help you survive.”

This is a sometimes maddeningly unambiguous book – and one wonders why it isn’t being marketed in the young adult rather than the adult category. But wondering about such things would hardly suit Bean, the girl who faces each of life’s vicissitudes fearlessly, then gets on with it, always remembering her mother’s words, “Don’t be afraid of your dark places. If you can shine a light on them, you’ll find treasure there.”

Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.