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The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls, Scribner, 304 pp.

Silver StarCharlotte Holladay ran away from her life as a Southern belle, daughter of the wealthy family living in their former plantation in a small town in Virginia. She married and had children, but left town after her husband’s death. She made a new life for herself as a wanderer, folk singer, drug user and wanderer in California in the 1960’s. Now she is a single mom of two daughters, ages 12 and 15, when life gets to be too much. She has left them before, but never for very long, and this time the police take notice.

The two girls, Liz and Bean, take a bus to the family home in Virginia, where they have not been since they were very young. They find Charlotte’s brother as a recluse in the family home, and Bean (the younger) begins to discover the history of her father and his family.  Eventually Charlotte returns, but the girls have made a new life in Byler. They begin working for Jerry Maddox, who is a bully in every way. The reader can immediately see where the plot is headed, as Jerry’s behavior eventually harms the girls and causes a catastrophic upset in the system of this Southern town, and of Liz and Bean’s lives.

I checked out this book because Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle was outstanding. It was deep and emotional and detailed and beautiful. This book lacked all of those things. Liz and Bean and Charlotte’s relationships with each other were generally uninspired, and the plot itself was predictable and unsurprising. While it wasn’t poorly written, the writing did not speak with any great art or beauty, and the characters failed to rise above stereotypes.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I rarely give poor reviews–largely because I don’t read things I don’t enjoy. However, I kept thinking that this one would get better, based on my experience of The Glass Castle. It never did. Don’t waste your time on this one. At best, it gets a “meh.” Hopefully Walls will return to her former ways in her next work.

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The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Scribner, 2005, 288 pp.

This book unfolds the simultaneous story of an unraveling and a piecing together, a coming apart and a unification. Walls’ memoir tells the story of her childhood, which is the unraveling of her parents’ mental health, the piecing together of her perception of what is really going on, the coming apart of any sense of stability or care, and the coming together of Walls’ own strength and fortitude and identity to escape and make a life for herself.

The account begins on Park Avenue in New York, as Walls rides in a taxi on her way to a party. She sees her mother digging through a dumpster. The story unfolds how her parents ended up there, and she didn’t. It’s the story of how she discovered her childhood experience was not normal, and how she and her siblings survived and eventually thrived.

What’s striking about the earliest chapters of the book is the matter-of-fact tone Walls takes while recounting horrific stories of pain and neglect. She describes injuries, hunger and inattention in her own life with a sense of distance, almost like a third-person narrator. It is impossible to tell if her distance equates to a necessary emotional distance from the pain or a healing and forgiveness from the dysfunction. I found myself getting angry and outraged on Walls’ behalf, because she did not express those things herself.

Some outrage does emerge as she matures in the story. It is this anger and indignation that eventually propels Walls and her siblings to leave home. It is the development of anger and separation from her parents, especially her father, that saves her.

This separation is never easy and never complete. It feels crushing for her to leave home because it is a rejection of all her father, whom she loves in spite of it all. Walls’ writing somehow manages to shield us from the heat of her emotions while connecting us to them, so that we can empathize both with her love and her need to leave. She does not write her book to punish her parents, or to work out her issues with them, or to offer moralization, or to tell a story of heroic overcoming. She just tells the story because it is her story, and it is compelling.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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