From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ gripping new novel that "transports us with her powerful storytelling...She contemplates the extraordinary bravery needed to confront real-life demons in a world where the hardest thing to do may be to not run away" (O, The Oprah Magazine).
It is 1970 in a small town in California. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister, Liz, is fifteen when their artistic mother, Charlotte, takes off to find herself, leaving her girls enough money to last a month or two. When Bean returns from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz decide to take the bus to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying mansion that’s been in Charlotte’s family for generations.
An impetuous optimist, Bean soon discovers who her father was, and hears stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Money is tight, and the sisters start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town, who bullies his workers, his tenants, his children, and his wife. Liz is whip-smart—an inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, nonconformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz in the car with Maddox.
Jeannette Walls has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.
The Silver Star CHAPTER ONE My sister saved my life when I was just a baby. Here’s what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her. I was only a few months old, so Mom put me in the infant carrier. She set it on the roof of the car while she stashed some things in the trunk, then she settled Liz, who was three, in the backseat. Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind—craziness, craziness, craziness, she’d say later. Completely forgetting that she’d left me on the roof, Mom drove off.
Liz started shrieking my name and pointing up. At first Mom didn’t understand what Liz was saying, then she realized what she’d done and slammed on the brakes. The carrier slid forward onto the hood, but since I was strapped in, I was all right. In fact, I wasn’t even crying. In the years afterward, whenever Mom told the story, which she found hilarious and acted out in dramatic detail, she liked to say thank goodness Liz had her wits about her, otherwise that carrier would have flown right off and I’d have been a goner.
Liz remembered the whole thing vividly, but she never thought it was funny. She had saved me. That was the kind of sister Liz was. And that was why, the night the whole mess started, I wasn’t worried that Mom had been gone for four days. I was more worried about the chicken potpies.
I really hated it when the crust on our chicken potpies got burned, but the timer on the toaster oven was broken, and so that night I was staring into the oven’s little glass window because, once those pies began turning brown, you had to watch them the entire time.
Liz was setting the table. Mom was off in Los Angeles, at some recording studio auditioning for a role as a backup singer.
“Do you think she’ll get the job?” I asked Liz.
“I have no idea,” Liz said.
“I do. I have a good feeling about this one.”
Mom had been going into the city a lot ever since we had moved to Lost Lake, a little town in the Colorado Desert of Southern California. Usually she was gone for only a night or two, never this long. We didn’t know exactly when she’d be back, and since the telephone had been turned off—Mom was arguing with the phone company about some long-distance calls she said she didn’t make—she had no way of calling us.
Still, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Mom’s career had always taken up a sizeable chunk of her time. Even when we were younger, she’d have a sitter or a friend watch us while she flew off to some place like Nashville—so Liz and I were used to being on our own. Liz was in charge, since she was fifteen and I’d just turned twelve, but I wasn’t the kind of kid who needed to be babied.
When Mom was away, all we ate were chicken potpies. I loved them and could eat them every night. Liz said that if you had a glass of milk with your chicken potpie, you were getting a dinner that included all four food groups—meat, vegetables, grain, and dairy—so it was the perfect diet.
Plus, they were fun to eat. You each got your very own pie in the nifty little tinfoil pie plate, and you could do whatever you wanted with it. I liked to break up the crust and mush it together with the bits of carrots and peas and the yellow gunk. Liz thought mushing it all together was uncouth. It also made the crust soggy, and what she found so appealing about chicken potpies was the contrast between the crispy crust and the goopy filling. She preferred to leave the crust intact, cutting dainty wedges with each bite.
Once the piecrusts had turned that wonderful golden brown, with the little ridged edges almost but not quite burned, I told Liz they were ready. She pulled them out of the toaster oven, and we sat down at the red Formica table.
At dinnertime, when Mom was away, we liked to play games Liz made up. One she called Chew-and-Spew, where you waited until the other person had a mouthful of food or milk, then you tried to make her laugh. Liz pretty much always won, because it was sort of easy to make me laugh. In fact, sometimes I laughed so hard the milk came shooting out of my nose.
Another game she made up was called the Lying Game. One person gave two statements, one true, the second a lie, and the other person got to ask five questions about the statements, then had to guess which one was the lie. Liz usually won the Lying Game, too, but as with Chew-and-Spew, it didn’t matter who won. What was fun was playing the game. That night I was excited because I had what I thought was an unbelievable stumper: A frog’s eyeballs go into its mouth when it’s swallowing or a frog’s blood is green.
“That’s easy,” Liz said. “Green blood is the lie.”
“I can’t believe you guessed it right away!”
“We dissected frogs in biology.”
I was still talking about how hilarious and bizarre it was that a frog used its eyeballs to swallow when Mom walked through the door carrying a white box tied with red string. “Key lime pie for my girls!” she announced, holding up the box. Her face was glowing and she had a giddy smile. “It’s a special occasion, because our lives are about to change.”
As Mom cut the pie and passed the slices around, she told us that while she’d been at that recording studio, she’d met a man. He was a record producer named Mark Parker, and he’d told her that the reason she wasn’t landing gigs as a backup singer was that her voice was too distinctive and she was upstaging the lead singers.
“Mark said I wasn’t cut out to play second fiddle to anyone,” Mom explained. He told her she had star quality, and that night he took her out to dinner and they talked about how to jump-start her career. “He’s so smart and funny,” Mom said. “You girls will adore him.”
“Is he serious, or is he just a tire-kicker?” I asked.
“Watch it, Bean,” Mom said.
Bean’s not my real name, of course, but that’s what everyone calls me. Bean.
It wasn’t my idea. When I was born, Mom named me Jean, but the first time Liz laid eyes on me, she called me Jean the Bean because I was teeny like a bean and because it rhymed—Liz was always rhyming—and then simply Bean because it was shorter. But sometimes she would go and make it longer, calling me the Beaner or Bean Head, maybe Clean Bean when I’d taken a bath, Lean Bean because I was so skinny, Queen Bean just to make me feel good, or Mean Bean if I was in a bad mood. Once, when I got food poisoning after eating a bowl of bad chili, she called me Green Bean, and then later, when I was hugging the toilet and feeling even worse, she called me Greener Beaner.
Liz couldn’t resist playing with words. That was why she loved the name of our new town, Lost Lake. “Let’s go look for it,” she’d say, or “I wonder who lost it,” or “Maybe the lake should ask for directions.”
We’d moved to Lost Lake from Pasadena four months ago, on New Year’s Day of 1970, because Mom said a change of scenery would give us a fresh start for the new decade. Lost Lake was a pretty neat place, in my opinion. Most of the people who lived there were Mexicans who kept chickens and goats in their yards, which was where they practically lived themselves, cooking on grills and dancing to the Mexican music that blared from their radios. Dogs and cats roamed the dusty streets, and irrigation canals at the edge of town carried water to the crop fields. No one looked sideways at you if you wore your big sister’s hand-me-downs or your mom drove an old brown Dart. Our neighbors lived in little adobe houses, but we rented a cinder-block bungalow. It was Mom’s idea to paint the cinder blocks turquoise blue and the door and windowsills tangerine orange. “Let’s not even pretend we want to blend in,” she said.
Mom was a singer, songwriter, and actress. She had never actually been in a movie or made a record, but she hated to be called “aspiring,” and truth be told, she was a little older than the people described that way in the movie magazines she was always buying. Mom’s thirty-sixth birthday was coming up, and she complained that the singers who were getting all the attention, like Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, were at least ten years younger than her.
Even so, Mom always said her big break was right around the corner. Sometimes she got callbacks after auditions, but she usually came home shaking her head and saying the guys at the studio were just tire-kickers who wanted a second look at her cleavage. So while Mom had her career, it wasn’t one that produced much in the way of income—yet. Mostly we lived on Mom’s inheritance. It hadn’t been a ton of money to begin with, and by the time we moved to Lost Lake, we were on a fairly tight budget.
When Mom wasn’t taking trips into L.A.—which were draining because the drive was nearly four hours in each direction—she tended to sleep late and spend the day writing songs, playing them on one of her four guitars. Her favorite, a 1961 Zemaitis, cost about a year’s rent. She also had a Gibson Southern Jumbo, a honey-colored Martin, and a Spanish guitar made from Brazilian rosewood. If she wasn’t practicing her songs, she was working on a musical play based on her life, about breaking away from her stifling Old South family, jettisoning her jerk of a husband and string of deadbeat boyfriends—together with all the tire-kickers who didn’t reach the boyfriend stage—and discovering her true voice in music. She called the play “Finding the Magic.”
Mom always talked about how the secret to the creative process was finding the magic. That, she said, was what you needed to do in life as well. Find the magic. In musical harmony, in the rain on your face and the sun on your bare shoulders, in the morning dew that soaked your sneakers and the wildflowers you picked for free in the roadside ditch, in love at first sight and those sad memories of the one who got away. “Find the magic,” Mom always said. “And if you can’t find the magic,” she added, “then make the magic.”
The three of us were magic, Mom liked to say. She assured us that no matter how famous she became, nothing would ever be more important to her than her two girls. We were a tribe of three, she said. Three was a perfect number, she’d go on. Think of it. The holy trinity, three musketeers, three kings of Orient, three little pigs, three stooges, three blind mice, three wishes, three strikes, three cheers, three’s a charm. The three of us were all we needed, Mom said.
But that didn’t keep her from going out on dates with tire-kickers.
This reading group guide forThe Silver Starincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In The Silver Star, Jeannette Walls (author of The Glass Castle) has written a heartbreaking and redemptive novel about an intrepid girl who challenges the injustice of the adult world. When their eccentric mother disappears on a journey to “find herself,” twelve-year-old Bean Holladay and her older sister Liz are forced to trek cross country from California to Virginia in order to dodge child services. They decide to head to Virginia, where their Uncle Tinsley lives in a decaying antebellum mansion and spends his days studying geology and his family history. Liz and Bean make a new life in Byler, and learn that the adult world is full of brokenness and unfairness—but also of great love, bravery, and beauty.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. It takes a certain amount of courage for two young girls to make their way cross country without their mother. Why are Liz and Bean able to take on such a journey?
2. Discuss Bean and Liz’s mother. What do her disappearances say about her ability to raise her children? Do you feel any sympathy for her and her need to leave Byler in the first place, and then leave it again to go to New York? Consider her fake boyfriend, her Hotel Madison breakdown, but also her quick return to Byler upon hearing of Liz and Bean’s trouble.
3. At the Byler Independence Day parade, Bean says, “Mom…had been telling us for years about everything wrong with America—the war, the pollution, the discrimination, the violence—but here were all these people, including Uncle Clarence, showing real pride in the flag and the country. Who was right?” (pg 86). This idea of opposing cultural viewpoints comes up numerous times during the girls’ stay in Virginia. How do Liz and Bean’s views differ from the more provincial townsfolk of Byler? Do the sisters stop seeing eye to eye? Is there a “right” way to look at things, or is much of opinion and belief based on context?
4. Can we trust Bean’s assessment of Jerry Maddox? Is there some truth to Maddox’s later accusation that Liz and Bean are wont to make up fantasies in a big game of “What’s Their Story?”
5. A number of adults advise Bean against seeing a lawyer after Maddox assaults Liz. What does this say about the adults of Byler? Are there ever grounds to let injustice stand? Would Liz and Bean have been better off forgetting the ordeal, or were they right to challenge Maddox’s abuse of power?
6. Discuss the Wyatt family and their involvement in the Holladays’ lives. What do Aunt Al, cousins Joe and Ruth, and Uncle Clarence offer Bean that she might not otherwise have? Consider especially Bean and Joe’s tire outing, as well as Clarence’s handling of Maddox’s demands at the house.
7. After Bean’s English class reads To Kill a Mockingbird, she notes, “For all of Miss Jarvis’s singing its praises as great literature, a lot of the kids in the class had real problems with the book…” (pg. 151). How do the students’ reactions reflect the racial tensions in Byler?
8. What changes do you see in Bean over the course of the story? Does she take Liz’s place as the strong, centered Holladay sister?
9. After Maddox is cleared of all charges, Bean says, “I felt completely confused, like the world had turned upside down, and we were living in a place where the guilty were innocent and the innocent were guilty. How are you supposed to behave in a world like that?” (pg 229). What do you think Bean and Liz learned about the adult world from the trial? How does one behave in a place where terrible things are allowed to happen without reprisal?
10. What do you think the emus represent for Liz?
11. When Bean starts waving at strangers, Liz notes, “You’ve gone native.” (pg 60). Have the girls become true Byler residents by the end of the novel? Is there still a bit of California in them? Or a bit of their mother?
12. Is there justice in the way Maddox is ultimately dealt with?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Much of The Silver Star is concerned with genealogy, from Uncle Tinsley’s documentation of the Holladays in Byler to Aunt Al filling in the blanks about Bean’s deceased father. Dig into your own family history. What sorts of interesting things do you know about your ancestors? Is there a way to find out more? If you can, share a token (like Charlie Wyatt’s silver star) with your book club.
2. “Bean” was so christened by Liz. Share with your book club any nicknames your siblings or other family members gave you.
3. One of the ways Liz and Bean seem able to deal with the very serious adult world around them is by playing games, whether it’s “What’s Their Story”? or Liz’s anagrams or spoonerisms. See how many spoonerisms you can come up with. If you’re feeling inspired, try to pen some emu-themed poetry.
4. Read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle, or the “true-life” novel about her grandmother, Half Broke Horses. How do Walls’s previous works compare to her fiction? Are the thematic concerns the same? Do the fictional families of The Silver Star seem as compelling as Walls’s real-world relatives?
5. Discuss moments in your life when someone was allowed to get away with a crime. How did it make you feel? Did the guilty person ever have to pay for their transgressions?
Jeannette Walls graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, has been a New York Times bestseller for more than six years. She is also the author of the instant New York Times bestsellers The Silver Star and Half Broke Horses, which was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. Walls lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.
“At heart Walls is a wonderful yarn-spinner…This is a page-turner, built for hammock or beach reading.”
– Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly
“Walls is adept at steeping her characters in some intense, old-fashioned drama…The Silver Star is a lovely, moving novel with an appealing narrator in Bean.”
– Carmela Ciuraru, USA Today
“Walls writes with easy assurance about Liz and Bean, proving in fiction as she did in her memoir, The Glass Castle, that she knows children’s hearts—as well as the evil that can lurk in the hearts of grown-ups.”
“Walls writes with the paired-down incisiveness of a memoirist looking for the significance of every incident, but it’s the way she draws Bean, so strong even in the face of all the additional challenges that come with her age, gender, and innocence, that will make this book a hit with readers.”
– Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast
Walls has written yet another gripping story of a courageous and sensible girl surviving the adults around her.”
– Holly Silva, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Told with a balanced, yet whimsical, voice of insight and awareness...[The Silver Star] is set during the Nixon ‘70s and Vietname War, and the author adeptly evokes the tumultuous era in the narrative without letting it overwhelm the primary thread of Bean’s coming-of-age adventures.”
– S. Kirk Walsh, San Francisco Chronicle
“A polished work of fiction…Engaging…Fans will find echoes of her coruscating family chronicle that first struck a chord with readers in 2005, but The Silver Star is the novel of a more confident, mature and calculating writer…[an] atmospheric bildungsroman of adolescent passage, changing times and bent but unbroken family bonds.”
– Jane Sumner, Dallas Morning News
“Great writing…An absorbing, unsentimental tale of childhood.”
– Chelsea Cain, The New York Times Book Review
“A great spirit comes through The Silver Star…Jeannette Walls knows how to make characters pop off the page (and tear your heart out in the process.)”
– Angela Mattano, Campus Circle Magazine
“With immense charm and warmth, Walls, the author of The Glass Castle, has created a lively account of kids finding a way to thrive in the absence of reliable parents.”
– Real Simple
“Jeannette Walls transports us with her powerful storytelling…Using Bean’s expertly crafted, naively stubborn voice, Walls contemplates the extraordinary bravery needed to confront real-life demons in a world where the hardest thing to do may be to not run away.”
– Abbe Wright, O, the Oprah magazine
“Jeannette Walls is a master at her craft. In the same way she spoke candidly of her own parents’ shortcomings in The Glass Castle, in The Silver Star she lends this candid voice to Bean, and captures the inner workings of an adolescent’s mind perfectly….The Silver Star stands strong as its own story, wholly unique and wholly captivating.”
– Kristin Fritz, EverdayEbook.com
“Walls’ writing is lively and her dialogue crips, and the girls’ struggles with their mother ring true.”
– Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
“[The Silver Star is] an examination of bad parenting and resilient children in a rich and complex setting. Bean is a compelling character, and it is fascinating to watch her ideas about both her mother and her sister change as the book progresses.”
– Sarah Rachel Egelman, Bookreporter.com
“Walls writes with equal tenderness for her most beloved characters and the least among them. It takes a compassionate soul to find the beauty in despair and that’s what Walls does best.”
– Amy MacKinnon, The Patriot Ledger
“Jeannette Walls jumps off the memoir train and hitches a ride on the novel form with The Silver Star.”