The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Precocious Jean ‘Bean’ Holliday lives with her gifted fifteen-year-old sister, Liz, and their flighty mother, Charlotte, who is determined to make it in the music industry as she relocates her daughters around California in the 1970s. When Charlotte’s latest fantasy backfires, she takes off to discover herself leaving her daughters enough money to indulge in frozen pot pies while she’s away for a month or two.

But the man who owns the grocery store becomes suspicious of Bean and Liz purchasing groceries for themselves week after week, the police are dispatched to investigate and Liz and Bean take off via bus to Virginia. There, in the hometown their mother fled soon after Bean’s birth, the Holliday sisters meet their Uncle Tinsley, discover who their fathers are, and learn why their mother left.

With no word from their mother and concerned they are putting undue economic strain on their uncle, the girls begin babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the town mill that was once owned by the Holliday family. Maddox shames his wife for her sexual behavior before their marriage and takes her clothes away in order to keep her under her thumb. And the town members turn a blind eye because the mill is only employment in town agreeing to whip boys whom Maddox hates and changing their testimony in a case that threatens to unravel the life of the Holliday girls.

At one point in Walls’ novel, her narrator begins to discuss the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and the familiarity of Walls’ novel began to make sense: a precocious narrator with a nickname who serves as the moral compass, a Southern town that turns a blind eye to injustices, an older sibling who provides wisdom and guidance for their younger sibling, a father who must make a choice about the morally right thing to do. It’s not the same and yet it is. Because while Walls’ novel addresses another scourge of this world, she relies upon an all too familiar narrator to tell it.

With that said, the beginning of the novel is very strong. I was pulled into the setting and the story wanting to know more about Bean but, most especially, her older sister who seemed wised beyond her years. Unfortunately, Liz becomes a victim to a prioritization of Bean as the character to root for, as the character who serves as the voice of morality for the story. It rubbed me the wrong way to read about Bean pushing for what her sister should do rather than allowed Liz to have the space to make such a decision for herself.

And the ending? I won’t spoil it for those who still want to read the novel, but I am curious as to how my book group’s discussion of this novel will go. Personally, I felt like the ending was a cop-out a la Jodi Picoult, and I was disappointed that Maddox’s other crimes were allowed to slide in that Bean never called him out for hurting his wife, children, or others in the community. I couldn’t not ascertain exactly what Walls was trying to say with her ending and I think I would have preferred to be left with the uncertainty of injustice than the ending Walls provided.

 Books Mentioned:

  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central, 1988. Originally Published 1960. Print. 281 pgs. ISBN: 9780446310789. Source: Purchased.
  • Walls, Jeannette. The Silver Star. New York: Scribner, 2013. Print. 267 pgs. ISBN: 9781451661507. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Scribner. Retrieved: August 8, 2014.
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