Author Jeannette Wells is no stranger to dysfunction.
Her best-selling memoir, “The Glass Castle” (Scribner, 2006), chronicles her hardscrabble childhood roaming from town to town in the desert before settling into a life of poverty in West Virginia. Her follow-up, “Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel” (Scribner, 2009), explores the adventurous life of her grandmother, an unconventional rodeo rider and bootlegger.
Walls’ latest novel, “The Silver Star” (Scribner, 2013), once again features resilient young girls who overcome trying circumstances. Liz, 15, and Jean (nicknamed “Bean”), 12, travel on their own from California to their mother’s hometown of Byler, Va., to stay with their elderly Uncle Tinsley. Their mother, Charlotte, has run off to Southern California for an indefinite time in a never-ending effort to pursue her dubious singing and acting career.
Life in 1970s Byler holds many advantages for the girls, but they run into a heap of trouble when they accept employment from the local mill boss and town bully, Jerry Maddox.
Two themes ring loud and clear in “The Silver Star”: the depths of Charlotte’s dysfunction and the injustices of the adult world.
It’s obvious from where Walls derives her inspiration: “The Glass Castle” documented her childhood with an alcoholic, delusional father and a free-spirited mother, both of whom proved candidates for the Worst Parent of the Year Award, Lifetime Achievement. But as in “The Glass Castle,” young heroines Bean and Liz deal with a large dose of injustice, and it is impressive to see how the girls handle themselves during the crisis.
Despite the larger, compelling themes, the real charm of “The Silver Star” lies in the descriptions and attitudes of and anecdotes about Byler’s residents. These are beautifully drawn characters: Bean has an aunt who works hard all day at the mill and comes home to cook and care for her physically disabled husband and four children, one of whom is probably mentally disabled. Yet this family has fun times, too, such as when they all go deep into the woods to pick chestnuts from the few remaining trees.
Liz and Bean, too, talk like real children and have a believable assortment of quirks and insecurities. In some respects, the book reads like a coming-of-age story as Liz comes to embrace a more unconventional path in life after adopting a pair of emus that belong to a neighbor: “She felt that she was sort of like an emu. … Both she and emus wanted to fly – they just didn’t have the wings they needed.”
In addition to rich characters, “The Silver Star” illuminates the political context of the day, with racial tensions in particular described in a nicely nuanced way. The book is set in 1970, when federal law forced schools in Byler to integrate. Tensions boil over at the first high school football game, and a huge fight erupts. Students later discuss the violence and other topics in class with surprising sensitivity and an encouraging give-and-take.
Fans of “The Glass Castle” will surely enjoy “The Silver Star.” I would highly recommend it as a selection for a women’s book club.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.