Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Photo: Author and book from

For the first time in recent memory, I find myself not giving a hypothetical four or five stars to a book that I read very quickly, in a couple of days.  Which is not to say that I disliked it.  In fact, I did like it, sometimes a lot, sometimes just in an okay kind of way.  But the book ultimately is a letdown from Walls's The Glass Castle, as all of her future works are probably destined to be. How can you match the excellence of a book that still maintains a solid perch on many national and worldwide bestseller lists, eight years after its initial publication?

This is a good, quick and easy read, but for once that comes across as...lacking.  The story suffers from an arc that peaks at the beginning, when it deals with the main character's narcissistic and manic mother (a conceit that Walls apparently excels at) and then descends until it stretches into a consistently straight line that never deviates, good or bad, up or down, until it just ends.  This line is still rather high, but not as high as the beginning, and not as high as it could have ascended to.  In essence, that's the problem here: the story never becomes what it could, and maybe should, have been.  It's a very good effort, and the reader feels that maybe this is Walls trying to be a fiction writer, with bigger and better things to come.

Another problem is the saccharine feel of the story.  Every character but for Bean, the narrator, is a very flawed person with a very good reason for being so, and usually with a very upbeat personality despite their incredible burdens and sufferings.  Such a world desperately needs a dirty, no-good villain, and Silver Star finally gets one: Jerry Maddox, who beats and suppresses his wife, and who tries to sexually abuse the young girls he hires to care for his house and property.  He is a man who has no redeeming qualities at all--and he comes across as so despicable that you would assume a real-life person like this really would not have one good character trait at all.  Yet there is the problem with this novel's characterizations: they're all extreme, and they're all very, all the time.

Bean, the first-person narrator, is an extremely likable, very spunky twelve-year old, always.  She never deviates from that.  She has no real anxieties, or moments of deep profundity or depression, or anything else.  Her mother is extremely careless, and a very bad, manic mother, all the time.  She never deviates from that.  She never has even one single moment of clarity, or of slowing down, or of realization.  I could go on and on...

The world all of these characters live in is seen through a distant haze of simplicity and rosiness.  Racism, segregation, peer pressure, bullying, family issues, the death of a father, sexual assault, social bias, socio-economic unfairness, lack of justice---all of these things are dealt a passing glance, and are more or less shrugged off by the main character and by many of the minor characters.  Every tree, prop, animal or pet (and I do mean each and every one) is serving double-duty, both as themselves and as willing symbols and extended metaphors, and the reader gets the impression that Walls was chomping at the bit to finally nail the folksy image.

And as every book of teenage angst has to mention Catcher in the Rye at least once if the comparison and homage (or derivation) is too obvious, so too must every book of southern race and justice acknowledge To Kill A Mockingbird.  This book does that so many times that it's worthy of comment.  There is a very nice scene, however, in which a very minor character says a very major thing about Harper Lee's book--and it may strike the reader as a revelation, as it did with me.  This alone makes this novel worthy of a read.

And this novel is worthy of a read, despite the many comments above.  It is perhaps a mirror-opposite of the horrors that Walls and others have covered in similarly-themed memoirs.  In this world, the children are saved from a shockingly careless, selfish and narcissistic mother; injustice is quickly righted; a lost girl is swiftly saved--and the reader wants all that to happen, and excuses the un-reality because of it.  The characters and the advice they give are all folksy, and catchy, on the page, if not in the reader's vernacular.  The townspeople are all pleasant and likeable.  The villain is appropriately unlikeable, and is dealt with at the end in a justifiable manner, though even that happens with a surprisingly narrated distance, a distance that too much of this novel has after the sisters move away from their mother.

Anyway, it's mostly good writing even if it's not good structure or good world-making, and everyone's likeable and the world, at least in the novel, turns out to be an okay place, and somehow it all comes together.  And the reader (or at least this one) doesn't feel badly about being okay with all that, even if it's clearly all bunk. 

That's a lot coming from me, since I usually demand harsh and gritty reality if the story is about harsh and gritty things.  You won't get that here, and I'm surprisingly okay with that.  And you will be, too.

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