Not long after reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls I stumbled across The Silver Star in the very same charity shop. If, after enjoying my first Walls book, that isn’t a sign to grab it and hand over £1 then frankly I don’t know what is.
Based on her own personal experiences of growing up and trying to find a safe place in the world for herself there is a distinct style to the books that Walls produces. A combination of a not-so-traditional childhood and combined with her journalistic writing style makes for a compelling read in both of these books (and I’m hoping the same applies to Half Broke Horses which I have found since these last two in the very same shop again!) and either serves as a shocking read to those that are in no way able to relate to the concepts mentioned or provide an uncomfortable nostalgic memory for those that can personally relate.
In both books there is one character that feels very similar and yet also so very different. The mother is a dreamer, a want-to-be successful creative that dreams of having her name recognised in one field or another. She grabs onto every vague chance, however unlikely, and tries to convince those around her that things are on the up. There are mental health struggles desperately attempted to be hidden from those around them and a sense of shame as to how their life has turned out that only serves to worsen their emotional well-being. The struggles of the mother are made glaringly obvious to the reader but it is apparent, and realistically imaginable, to see how these challenges could get lost in the worlds of the other characters.
The Silver Star sees the mother as a single parent to two girls; Bean (12) and Liz (15) both of whom are desperately trying to succeed in school and tell the outside world that home life is all okay. They both know that they can get cheap pies and enjoy them whenever their mum disappears on one of her hopeful shots at acting, dancing or singing stardom and they look after each other with an intense sisterly bond. But when their mum takes off for a longer period of time even they get bored of the delicious crusty pies as one day blends into the next but boredom quickly becomes the least of their worries.
With no word from their mum, money slowly running out and the next door neighbour having seemingly contacted the police about the mum’s mysterious absence they get on a bus cross the country (USA) in search of their uncle residing in the traditional family home. They escape the uncertainly of the ‘child snatchers’ but now find themselves in a town with high racial tensions, a criminal villain and an uncle that thinks clothes from 20 years ago would suit them perfectly for their first day at school.
Seeing that their uncle cannot realistically afford to keep them around the house, a bit of a sorry state where he resides alone as a widow and without the same income as his parents would have enjoyed before him, they try to find a way to make some extra money to buy new clothes, books and to liven up the evening stew a little. But having to do it behind their uncle’s back, as he is mortified at the idea of a member of the ‘prestigious’ Holladay family having to work in the town, in a town where they don’t really know anybody or much about the way the place works is risky business. After rejections at every place of employment and house in town they end up doing work for the dodgy Jerry Maddox, still keeping it a secret from uncle Tinsley, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable by the tasks that they carry out.
One day, it all goes wrong. It hardly comes as a surprise to the reader as all the signs of trouble had managed to brew for some time and yet the situation itself still causes a sense of disgust and anger in the reader. The anger builds, feeling like you have entered the story personally by the girls side at that moment, as they go about trying to seek justice and stand up for what is right. The town is terrified, they make horrible jokes and jibes to try and cover up their fears, and it isn’t until months later when they express their real feelings. The girls suddenly have a sense of understanding as to why their mother left the family home and how the stories about her resulted in cruel treatment from the locals but when the mum tries to yank them back away from the Holladay home they push back and demand she puts her past behind her.
The story of the way that the uncle accepts the girls, out of nowhere, into his life and home is beautifully written. It shows how family and the family name can mean so much to people regardless of any past issues and how he desperately tries to keep the girls away from harm or hearing bad bits about the past. He introduces them to Bean’s family and ensures that they have a support network and attempts for them to fit into the local school. Tinsley protects them like a doting father would and his love is greatly appreciated by Bean but partly rejected by a confused teenage Liz.
It’s hard to say that there is really a happy ending to this book. There are certainly some positive outcomes but there are things that the family will never be able to forget and they will always be forced to live with those trying memories. There is certainly a satisfying ending to the book and one that brings a sigh of relief to the reader as well as a little wry smile. It brings a sense of comfort and hope with a touch of desire to never be afraid of standing up for what is right however painful it might end up presenting itself as.
I preferred The Glass Castle but would still highly recommend picking up The Silver Star if the chance should arise as it has its own little piece of magical meaning hidden away throughout the well constructed paragraphs. In many ways Jeannette Walls is the writer I aspire to be.