The work of journalist Jeannette Walls took a turn for the personal when she published, to great acclaim, her 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, about her childhood with her drifting, dysfunctional family. She followed that up in 2009 with Half Broke Horses, her imagining of the life of her grandmother Lily Casey Smith, an extraordinary, stabilizing presence in The Glass Castle. Perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll hear echoes of those books in her latest, The Silver Star, her first all-out work of fiction and our club’s choice in August 2013. RealSimple.com producer Benice Atufunwa led the discussion of the book.
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The Silver Star: Chapters 1 Through 26
I hope you’ve been having a good read with this book. The first half has definitely been a whirlwind. The book opens with Bean, her older sister, Liz, and their mother, Charlotte, living in a cinderblock house in a place called Lost Lake, California. It’s 1970.
I don’t think we can have this discussion without first talking about Charlotte. Moody and flighty, loving yet irresponsible, Charlotte seems to be incapable of being a parent to her two daughters. Although their mother refers to them as the “Tribe of Three,” she habitually leaves them for days at a time to pursue her dream of being a professional singer. Left to fend for themselves, living off of nothing but chicken pot pies, Bean and Liz make sure that they show up to school on time so that the Bandersnatches (as they refer to “do-gooding government busy-bodies”) don’t start asking questions. But just that very thing winds up happening. When Bean inadvertently exposes her mother’s lies about a boyfriend, Charlotte flies into a hysterical rage and storms out, leaving the two girls alone; for two weeks they continue on, until a nosy acquaintance tips off the Bandersnatches. With $200 that Charlotte had sent—along with a letter that contained no word of when she’d return—the girls take a bus cross-country to Byler, Virginia, to stay (uninvited) with their mother’s brother, whom they haven’t seen since Liz was 3 and Bean was a newborn.
I thought it was a little unusual how casual Liz and Bean are about their mother walking out on them. It’s one of the biggest events in the first half of the book and sets the whole story in motion, but not much is made of it. How do you feel about Charlotte leaving her children? I was also perplexed by their decision to go across the country to a relative with whom they’d had no contact for over a decade. What do you think about the girls’ decision to go to their mother’s brother?
After a long bus ride, and an unfortunate run-in with a “Perv,” Bean and Liz make it to their uncle Tinsley’s house. Not afforded the warmest of welcomes (the first night, he makes the girls sleep in a room in a barn on the family property, Mayfield), Uncle Tinsley is clearly annoyed by his unexpected guests and disgusted, yet not surprised, that Charlotte would abandon them. But soon he warms up to his nieces, giving them a tour of the small town he grew up in, showing them around the mansion he inhabits, and telling them about the family history. (Once a prominent family of Byler, the Holladays were successful mill owners and the social toast of the small town. But after the death of Tinsley’s parents and wife and the loss of the mill, the Holladays, as well as their once magnificent property, are in decline.)
After a run-in with a young man who turns out to be her cousin, Bean learns something about her mysterious father from Tinsley: His family lives in Byler too! Tracking down their father’s brother, the girls are warmly welcomed into his home by his wife, who feeds them peach pie and some shocking family history. Their father hadn’t died in a mill accident; he’d been murdered by the brother of a man he had killed in self-defense during an argument over Charlotte. How did you feel when this was revealed? Although the circumstances of the story were startling, I have to say I wasn’t all that surprised that Bean’s mother hadn’t told her the truth; that totally seems like something she would do.
Unexpectedly, Charlotte shows up to find the girls. Whisking them away from Mayfield and checking into an extravagant hotel that she once frequented with her mother as a young girl but now clearly can’t afford, Charlotte has a breakdown and has to be hospitalized. What were your feelings about this event? Do you think that Charlotte suffers from a mental health issue? This part of the story made me wonder if that boyfriend back in California was the only thing that Charlotte had made up and if her behavior is just a manifestation of a mental illness.
Rescued from the hotel by Tinsley, Bean and Liz return to Byler and Mayfield and settle into their new reality. But with the beginning of the school year approaching—and not wanting to be a financial burden on their uncle—Bean and Liz go on the hunt for side jobs. After being rejected by just about everyone around town, the two get hired by a bear of a man by the name of Jerry Maddox. Given their first encounter with Maddox, his later “interview” with Bean and Liz, and the history that he and Uncle Tinsley share, what do you make of Jerry Maddox? What do you think his intentions are?
I’m sure that the whole Maddox vs. Uncle Tinsley situation will come to a head in the next half of the book; and I have a feeling that it’s going to be explosive! Let’s finish the book for next Friday’s discussion. Happy reading!
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The Silver Star: Chapters 27 Through the End
We’ve finished the second half of The Silver Star and so much has happened.
This half of the book takes us to Bean and Liz’s first day at their newly integrated high school. The tension between the white students and the new black students who have to attend Byler High is palpable and keeps building as the story goes on. Things come to a head at the big season-opener football game when a white man pelts a black cheerleader with garbage and a black man does the same to a white cheerleader—the girls’ cousin Ruth. An all-out brawl ensues. How do you think the author handled race and race relations in this book? For me, this part of the plot line seemed unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the overall story. If race or the racial attitudes of the characters was something that the author wanted to explore, there were other parts of the book where she wrote about it with more finesse. For example, how Bean’s family reacts to the idea of her soldier cousin Truman bringing his Vietnamese girlfriend back to America was much more telling, I thought, than the drama at Byler High. But the riot and the fights between students is nothing compared to the incident between Liz and Jerry Maddox that sets the rest of the story in motion.
After being cheated by Maddox, Liz goes to confront him and ends up being brutally assaulted by him. As horrible as this event was, I can’t say that it was surprising. Since being introduced, Jerry Maddox’s character hasn’t really evolved past the notion that he’s a bully, a brute, and generally a horrible human being. To attack a young girl and then imply that she had it coming is right up his alley. Liz manages to fight him off, though, and with the help of a bystander she escapes and is taken back to her uncle’s house. Bean and Tinsley are upset when they open door to see Liz, swollen-eyed and swollen-faced, holding her ripped blouse together. But just as not much was made of Charlotte’s abandoning her children, not much was made of Maddox’s attempted rape (initially, anyway). What was your reaction to this event? How do you feel about Uncle Tinsley’s response, or lack thereof? It seemed as if he was more concerned about his reputation than the fact that a man (whom he strongly dislikes) attacked his niece. Tinsley even goes so far as to discourage Liz and Bean from going to the police, but the next day they seek out the help of a lawyer and do just that.
Precocious and plucky as ever, Bean convinces Liz—and, later, Uncle Tinsley—that filing charges against Maddox was their only option and they proceed as such. The trial is set for March, four months later. The events leading up to the trial are strange, to say the least. Maddox’s trying to run over Bean and Liz whenever he’d come across them walking to school (I’m not sure how someone can get away with trying to run over two children multiple times, but sure), Bean’s declaration and subsequent efforts to kill Maddox, and Maddox barging into Uncle Clarence Wyatt’s home and demanding that he beat his son Joe for slashing his tires…and Clarence actually doing it!! I know these incidents were meant to build the tension between the two sides, but I found them more distracting than anything. How do you all feel about the events leading up to the trail?
The day of the trial arrives, and Bean, Tinsley, the Wyatts, and even Charlotte are in tow to support Liz and get the justice she deserves. It is an open-and-shut case…against Liz, that is. Using the information that he gleamed from the girls during his “interview,” Maddox and his lawyer paint Liz and Bean as two troublemaking girls from a broken home. And the bystander who saved Liz and was supposed to testify on her behalf lies and says that nothing happened. He was clearly influenced by Maddox. What did you make of the trial and the verdict? And how did you feel about Liz’s accidental (or purposeful) overdose afterward? She started off as such a strong character and it’s sad how she’s crumbled.
After the trial and Liz’s overdose, Charlotte suggests that she, Bean, and Liz pick up and go on a road trip. Once again, Charlotte seems more concerned with her needs and her desire to leave Byler than with what’s actually good for her kids. But Bean confronts her mother about her tendency to run away from problems. She even takes Charlotte to task for her shaky parenting skills. What was your reaction to this exchange? Do you think that it was disrespectful of Bean to speak to her mother that way? And should she have apologized? I personally was glad that Bean said this, but I was surprised that all of a sudden Charlotte was willing to admit that she’s been a bad mother. This was the woman who abandoned her children because they realized that she had a make-believe boyfriend. I was expecting more of a confrontation with her on this.
After Bean and Charlotte’s fight, Liz slowly recovers with the help of two emus that she comes to care for. I guess one could say that these birds are her spirit animals. Feeding them every day and even writing poetry about them, Liz returns to school and finds a group of “misfits” to hang out with. Charlotte leaves her kids again and things become relatively peaceful for the two girls. But not for long.
About a month after the trial, the girls learn that Maddox, who had been bullying the workers, got fired from his job at the mill following an altercation. This seems like the last of Maddox, but a chance run-in changes everything.
Bean and Joe, after hanging out in a salvage yard, return to town and come upon Maddox’s giant black car. It’s empty. Joe’s dog, Dog, decides that the car’s tires are the perfect bathroom. And then Maddox returns. Grabbing the dog by the scruff of his neck, he throws Dog in his trunk (what!), gets Bean and Joe into the car, and heads to the Wyatts’ house. Once again, Maddox storms in and demands that Uncle Clarence shoot Dog, claiming the animal is a menace. Clarence gets his gun and the two men and dog head out to the backyard. Suddenly there’s a loud boom—and Maddox is dead in the vegetable garden. “Thought he was a bear,” says Clarence. How did you feel about the way Maddox was killed? And what did you think of everyone accepting Clarence’s story? Ironically, Liz seemed to be the only one upset about the fact that Maddox was dead. Were you surprised by her reaction?
The end of the book takes us to Liz and Bean trying to bring home their two adopted emus, who had escaped. Previous attempts were fruitless, but this time the birds allow the girls to put ropes around their necks and lead them back the Mayfield. How did you feel about the ending and the book overall? To be honest, this book left me wanting more. Not a bad book, but I feel like it had great potential and could have been so much more. What did you think? And what’s more, what would you want to ask author Jeannette Walls about it? She’ll be answering your questions, so post them below by next Friday, August 23.
Well, readers, it was a pleasure being your book club discussion leader. Happy reading!
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A Q&A With Jeannette Walls About The Silver Star
The themes in Jeannette Walls’s novel The Silver Star—family, abandonment, resilience—are familiar to anyone who has read either her extraordinary 2005 memoir of her childhood, The Glass Castle, or her follow-up, 2009’s Half Broke Horses. Here, Walls answers questions from club members about The Silver Star, her first all-out work of fiction, adding in her note: “First, I’d like to say how thrilled I am that Real Simple’s book club selected The Silver Star! Second, thanks so very much for these thoughtful and interesting questions.” See what else she had to say.
From reader dconnolly: Although I believe that I understand the symbolism in the “silver star,” I was curious about the title choice. My question for Jeannette Walls is, did she consider any other titles while the book was in progress, and if so, what were they?
I considered several titles for the book, including Tender Shoots, from that line from the Job passage I quoted about how when a tree is chopped down, its tender shoots will not cease. But most people upon hearing it thought it was a cookbook or a bad pun about gun play.
From reader mnilles: I would ask Jeannette Walls if there is any biography in this story. I knowThe Glass Castleis a memoir andHalf Broke Horsesis based on a grandmother.
Most authors write what they know and while The Silver Star is not autobiographical, it is certainly inspired by people and places and situations I’ve known.
From reader CatKib: I hope there is a follow up to this book...to the author, Jeannette Walls, could there be a sequel to Liz and Bean? I would love to see their next adventures in life.
Hmm…. Readers tend to be very smart about heading me in the direction of my new book.
From discussion leader Benice Atufunwa: What was your inspiration for the story? Were Bean and Liz based on you or anyone you’ve known in your life? Did Charlotte have a mental health illness? What do you think your book says about family? In the beginning of the story, Liz is such a strong, crafty, and intelligent person who can handle herself. But by the end of the book one couldn’t even say that she was a shell of her previous self. Why did Liz’s character change so drastically?
Wow. Those are some piercing questions. I bet you made a great discussion leader.
I don’t know if I would say that Charlotte is mentally ill, but she sure is out there somewhere. A “mental disorder” would probably be closer to the diagnosis than a mental illness.
As I told mnilles in question number two, not one character is based on anyone I know; it’s more a composite of composites.
One of the inspirations for the story is the power of sibling love, how so often when a parent is irresponsible, one of the children rises to the occasion and becomes the adult so that the other siblings can be kids. That can make the child stronger and he or she goes on to become a CEO or a political leader, but if the pressure is too great, the child may crack under the pressure.
Regarding Liz’s sudden decline, I’ve witnessed several situations in which young people seem to have had their act together in their teens, only to crumble suddenly and dramatically in their late teens or early twenties. Usually, it’s simply a rough period for them, but sometimes, it’s an irreversible slide into darkness. Liz was so capable and smart in many ways, but she always was much more fragile than she let on. Once she was confronted with her own vulnerability, the situation became unbearable to her.
What does The Silver Star say about family? As Bean would say, that’s complicated. In deference to the magazine that is behind this discussion, let’s keep it real simple and say that family is a mixed bag, a bundle of contradictions, the worst and the best, your heaviest burden and your biggest source of support, the cause of complete sorrow and utter joy.
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: Were the exotic-out-of-place birds meant to symbolize the California girls? Do you think that they were all happily led to where they should be?
Depends on who you ask. Liz, who often thinks in metaphors, believes that the birds somehow embodied her essence as well as her journey. Bean’s a little more literal. In her mind, a bird’s a bird.