Monday, 30 September 2013

The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls is justly renowned for her wonderful memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, and her novelised version of her Grandmother’s life ‘Half Broke Horses’ (see February 2010 review below):  her third book is fiction, concentrating on the lives of two sisters, Liz and Jean Holladay, and their attempts to make a decent life for themselves – they are convinced that they can;  that nothing can bring them down – as long as they stay together.
They are the daughters of two different fathers.  Their mother Charlotte is a self-professed free spirit, going where the road takes her as a backup singer, songwriter and guitarist.  When the story starts 12 year old Jean, always nicknamed Bean, and 15 year old Liz are waiting patiently for their mother to return from several days away in Los Angeles looking for recording work.  They are used to her absences and can look after themselves reasonably well – for a time, until a series of adversities make Charlotte decide that she should have some  solo headspace ‘to get herself back on the right creative and spiritual track’ so that eventually they can continue being a merry ‘tribe of three’, for who needs anyone else when they have each other?  She just needs a little break. 
Except that Bean and Liz know that they don’t have their mother at all:  they can only depend on themselves, and when the authorities start taking an interest, they embark on the only plan they can think of:  a bus trip to Virginia where Charlotte’s estranged family live – the only relatives they know about for Charlotte would never discuss the girls’ fathers except to say that one was a wastrel and the other was ‘beneath her’.
Liz’s resourcefulness enables them to make the arduous journey from California to Virginia, there to arrive unannounced at the ancestral home and find that the rich family Charlotte had scorned and fled from in her efforts to find herself has entered a decline;  the big white house on the hill is decaying, the land around it run down and untended, the family cotton mill has been sold and their Uncle Tinsley Holladay has turned into a semi-recluse after the death of his wife Martha.
Such shocking realities would daunt most people and the girls are no exception, but for all his eccentricity Uncle Tinsley is a kind and decent man;  he takes his new-found and desperate nieces in, giving them some sorely-needed stability in their lives.  Bean makes contact with her father’s family  and life looks up – until they start looking for work so that they can buy themselves new clothes to start the coming school year.
And that is when this lovely story takes a nasty turn, for the only person to  employ them in such a depressed small town is a tyrant and an abuser who regards them as easy game, to be reeled in whenever he pleases.  It is only a matter of time before a chain of events is set in motion, causing the town to be divided and people’s loyalties tested along with newly-forged family bonds.  Liz’s courage and resourcefulness runs out, and Bean finds a much-needed bull-at-a-gate gumption and steadfastness that obviously comes from the other side of her family - for their mother proves yet again that when it really, really matters, she still has feet of clay.
For this reader, Ms Walls has done it again, creating in strong and lucid prose great characters and a wonderful account of the ties that bind – and those that tear us apart;  strengths and weaknesses that exist in every family, as we all know.  Highly recommended.

Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, long-time journalist and already well-known for her celebrated memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, wanted to write a memoir of her maternal Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith , but Lily turned out to be such a larger-than-life character, so singular and indomitable that writing of her in the third person fell flat on the page;  turning her story, all true, into a first-person narrative and therefore a novel, was the only way that Lily could leap satisfyingly off the print and into the reader’s mind and heart.  The prose is matter-of-fact, without frills, chronicling Lily’s life from the age of six in the early 1900’s when she helped her father break horses;  how her younger brother Buster got the only long-term formal education ‘because he was a boy and he would inherit the ranch’, whilst she and her sister were educated by Dad, who was well-read but had his own radical ideas about politics, government and civilization in general.  When she was thirteen she was allowed to board at a mission school for six months, but was sent home because Dad had spent her tuition money on eight Great Danes, from whom he was going to make a killing when he bred them;  sadly, his next-door neighbor shot them as soon as they ventured onto his land, thinking they would kill his stock.  Lily, naturally, was bitter that her tuition money disappeared so quickly, but was eventually dispatched at the age of fifteen to a tiny settlement in Northern Arizona as its teacher.  The First World War had started;  able-bodied men were enlisting;  women were moving into the factories, so she was offered a job as a relief schoolteacher at Red Lake, five hundred miles from her home, a journey she undertook on horseback without a backward glance.  It took her a month, and this reader is still in awe of her accomplishment, written about not as a huge, brave undertaking, but just as a statement of fact:  this was how it was ‘back in the day’.  In the course of Lily’s life she learned to drive a car, fly a plane, manage a huge ranch in Arizona with her second husband (the first was a bigamous, low-down  no-gooder), and led the kind of life that makes us city-slickers quake at the mere thought of the hard work, hardship and privation.  She was a woman of huge heart, unshakeable conviction, great humour and rigid opinions, particularly about her daughter’s choice of a husband:  ‘You need a steady man.  He ain’t steady.  What are you going to do for a honeymoon?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – we’ll go where the road takes us.’
  ‘Well honey, you’re in for a ride.’  And eventually had to wave them off as ‘they took off off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.’


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