Janet Maslin

THE SILVER STAR

Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls’ new novel, The Silver Star, is systematically built, each brick put in place for a reason. It’s easy to understand why writing fiction makes Walls so methodical. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, told a far more painful story, and Walls surely knows that her personal history colors perceptions of whatever else she writes.

In her case, the truth is stranger and messier than fiction. Those feckless, self-involved parents helped (if that’s the word) make her famous. They also unwittingly gave her affinities for structure and order.

Walls’ tough, uncluttered narrative style saved a potentially tear-jerking horror story from voyeurism and sentimentality. That same good sense and moxie got her through Half Broke Horses, where to tell the story of one of Walls’ grandmothers, she had to walk an uneasy line between memoir and fiction.

The Glass Castle haunts The Silver Star. Once again, the narrator is a girl with an erratic mother, and that girl has to raise herself without much help. But now Walls can deliver the wish-fulfilling version of her girlhood. So the mother in this novel exclaims: “How dare you speak to me like that? I’m your mother.” And Bean, the 12-year-old heroine, replies: “Then act like one for a change. We wouldn’t be in this whole mess if you had been acting like a mom all along.”

There’s a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird in The Silver Star, enough to remind readers that Harper Lee chose to quit while she was ahead. There are also elements of Dickens, as befit Walls’ truly Dickensian girlhood, and Lewis Carroll, who knew how to make illogic seem perfectly sane. Bean’s older half-sister, Liz, especially loves Through the Looking-Glass.

The Silver Star takes place early in the Nixon presidency, when the Vietnam War is roiling, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell are all the rage and Charlotte Holladay, the girls’ mother, thinks she ought to be a singer. “Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind — craziness, craziness, craziness, she’d say later,” Bean explains on the first page.

When Mom runs off, the girls decide to go from California to Byler, Va., the Holladay family’s hometown. They discover a lonely relative in a neglected family manse (see Great Expectations), but Uncle Tinsley quickly morphs from a curmudgeon into a treasure. And Bean finds out the identity of her father: He was Charlie Wyatt, whose Silver Star from the Korean War gives the book its title.

Mom drops back into the book for a bipolar, borderline abusive episode or two. But Liz and Bean soon realize that they’ve got to make their own way. So they need jobs. And the story needs a villain. Along comes the wicked Jerry Maddox, who talks about himself in the third person, has arms like hams, mistreats his wife and generally has more evil traits than a dog has fleas. It’s very easy to fall into Walls’ country idiom while reading her.

Byler’s high school is being integrated for the first time, and the new black students don’t like having to read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class. “No one’s challenging the system,” one of them accurately observes about the black characters in the story. But Walls builds a Mockingbird-like courtroom scenario into her book anyway.

And Bean’s cries of “Dirtbag liar!” don’t keep injustice from being done. Ultimately, the half-sisters come of age, taking responsibility for themselves and harnessing every metaphor Walls sets up for them.

As for the Silver Star medal, it’s bound to reappear at moments when Bean thinks about courage. And it’s not unwelcome. This is a book in which nothing is complicated, good and bad are polar opposites and life never fails to make sense, in a hokey and homespun way. No need to feel “as guilty as the hound dog who stole the hambone” for swallowing that.