I was excited to read Jeannette Walls’s new book, The Silver Star. I loved her fascinating memoir, The Glass Castle, in which she details growing up dirt poor, riding on the erratic whims of her crazy parents. (The movie with Jennifer Lawrence is on the way!) I also enjoyed Walls’s “true-life novel,” Half-Broke Horses, based on her grandmother’s rough-and-tumble life as an Arizona horse rancher. In both books, Walls writes clear, confident prose. Her details are carefully chosen – vividly painting characters and scenes while still moving the story along. For all of these reasons and more, I assumed I would like The Silver Star.
Only one thing worried me. The Silver Star is a novel and I wondered, could Walls write a fictional story as interesting as her own life?
The answer is yes…and no.
Yes, because The Silver Star starts out with that same fast-paced confidence and the same flair for story-telling. “My sister saved my life when I was just a baby,” it begins. “Here’s what happened.”
And yes, because what happened is awfully similar to Walls’s real life. The year is 1970, and twelve-year-old Jean “Bean” Holladay, the narrator, seems to be a stand-in for Walls herself. Bean lives with her older sister, Liz (who bears likeness to Walls’s older sister, Lori), and their selfish mother, Charlotte, who is nearly identical to the way Walls portrays her own mother in The Glass Castle, swapping her mother’s artistic aspirations with Charlotte’s musical ones.
After Charlotte suffers a bizarre mental breakdown, Jean and Liz are forced to move from the California desert to western Virginia, back to their mother’s hometown, to stay with their hermit uncle. In real life, Walls and her family moved from the California desert to West Virginia to stay with relatives in her father’s hometown.
All of this is fine with me, by the way. I know authors borrow from real life all the time and that main characters are often thinly-veiled versions of the author. Just look at Cheryl Strayed’s beautiful novel, Torch, which is about as autobiographical as you can get. So I’m not blaming Walls for writing what she knows – she should mine that crazy childhood of hers for all it’s worth!
Except, in a way, she didn’t write what she knows. Her real childhood was confusing and scary and heart-breaking. In this fictionalized version, everything snaps into place just a little too neatly.
While living with their Uncle Tinsley (who turns out to be a dear, old man) Bean meets her dead father’s family, and they immediately welcome her into the flock. Her cheerful Aunt Al (a country-woman who is always cooking with bacon fat and dishing out warm-fuzzy advice), gives Bean her father’s war medal, a Silver Star, which later serves (along with chestnut trees and emus) as a rather pointed symbol.
Conflict brews when the sisters begin working for Jerry Maddox, the smarmy owner of the town’s mill. Just as Aunt Al is too “good,” Maddox is too evil, and as the book progresses, he becomes almost cartoon-like in his villainy.
I suppose this where the “no” comes in. Although the story and characters are interesting, they’re not quite believable.
In The Glass Castle, plenty of unbelievable things happen, from obscenely neglectful parenting to the Walls children figuring out how to escape from their drastic situation. Unbelievable stuff, but I believed it, of course. For one thing, “memoir” is stamped on the front of the book, so unless Walls is another James Frey, this crazy shit actually happened to her. But that wasn’t the only reason why The Glass Castle was believable. There were also the unresolved issues, complicated relationships, bitter feelings – all the hallmarks of a true story.
The Silver Star didn’t have much of that.
“Every time we run into a problem, we just leave,” Bean tells Charlotte poignantly towards the end of the book. “Can’t we for once just stay somewhere and solve the problem?” It’s the sort of thing that Jeannette Walls probably wished she had said to her parents long ago. But in real life, things are left unsaid, and problems aren’t always solved. So, of course, Bean and Liz do stay to solve the problem. The good guys triumph and the bad guy is punished. By the end of the book, when the whole town shows up to offer good-natured help to Bean and Liz as they round up their escaped emus, it’s painfully obvious – this is something that would never really happen.
I realize I’ve made it sound as if I didn’t enjoy the book, and that’s not true, because in many ways I did. Bean’s narration was plucky and cute; the setting was charming and fun. And the escalating situation with Maddox kept me turning pages. It’s obvious that Walls worked hard to create conflict, use symbols, and tell an organized and interesting story. But I wish someone had told her that she needn’t wrap everything up into such a neat package.
This was Walls’s first attempt at a “real” novel. For now, I have to say that her fact is better than her fiction. But I have no doubt, given her natural writing ability, that her next attempt will be better. After all, according to her mother in The Glass Castle, “Jeannette never had much going for [her] except that [she] always worked hard.” Walls obviously worked hard on The Silver Star to make the pieces fit together neatly. I’m sure she will take the criticism she receives and work hard to make her next novel just a little bit more of a mess – because that’s the way life really is.