I tremendously enjoyed both of Walls’ earlier books, The Glass Castle and Half-Broke Horses, and so was excited to read her first novel The Silver Star. The book is written fairly well, and without the constraints of her own personal experience, she clearly felt free to roam a bit. Which is why I was kind of shocked to discover that the first two-thirds of the book was an unabashed take-off on Cynthia Voight’s beautiful young adult novel Homecoming, which led to its own movie and a highly-successful series of sequel novels. In both books, young children have no father, are abandoned by their dysfunctional mother, make a cross-country trip on their own initiative to visit a reclusive relative who isn’t prepared to take them in, but they worm themselves into their relative’s heart and ultimately into the small-town community they adopt as their own.
In truth, the mother in The Silver Star is clearly modeled on Walls’ own dysfunctional mother and is less the broken woman in Homecoming portrayed with such pathos by Voight and more of a self-centered bitch. The daughters in Walls’ book are interesting characters—the tough smart young one is Bean, who at age 12 is a survivor, while the eldest is Liz, a sensitive 15-year-old poet and dreamer and a bit of a genius—and yet they somehow don’t quite ring true. They are both too mature and yet lacking in basic common sense. They get into a horrible situation with the town’s psychotic bully and abuser when they go to work for him behind their uncle’s back, and I couldn’t help but wonder where their smarts had disappeared to when they made such an absurd decision, with not unexpected consequences.
The novel attempts to address a number of issues, from racism to Vietnam War politics to the effects of economic depression on small town America, and as such Walls is to be commended. And the story has enough humor, pathos and gasp-aloud moments to make it work. But I couldn’t get past the fact that it felt like a cheap knockoff of Homecoming, and that somehow soured the experience for me. Although I must admit that the emus were a delightful touch and made for a sweet ending.