THE SILVER STAR, by Jeannette Walls. Scribner, 267 pp., $26.
In this novel, two sisters -- Liz, 15, and Bean, 12 -- are first seen in their Southern California desert home, working their way through a mountain of chicken potpies. Their mother, Charlotte, who imagines herself a creative genius in a world of Philistines, has gone off to L.A. to further her music career. The girls use the money she left for them to live on, but inevitably the grocer notices and reports them to a social worker. All the girls have is each other, and they can't bear to be separated. Liz remembers that their mother has family in a small mill town in rural Virginia. To avoid an orphanage or worse, they use the last of their pie money and take the bus to Virginia.
The town mill was owned for years by their uncle's family. Their family home is a mansion, and the town's main street bears their family name. But their reception is cold: "Get off my property," their Uncle Tinsley snarls, brandishing his shotgun. When the girls introduce themselves, he treats them to a few well-chosen words about their mother. The first night he makes them sleep in the barn, but later he gives them a wing of the house to live in.
Their mother had a history in this town. Her first husband left her, and Bean's father was a disgrace, a mill worker who shot someone. Bean discovers the paternal side of her family: a motherly woman named Aunt Al and her Cousin Joe, who adds to the family income by scavenging -- some would say "stealing" -- fruits and vegetables from other people's gardens. They are exotic and fascinating in Bean's eyes, because they make up a genuine family as opposed to the jerry-built structure their mother called "the Tribe of Three."
The girls decide they need to get jobs to buy clothes for school. They go to work for Jerry Maddox, a new foreman at the mill. As Bean remembers him later, "Maddox was a troublemaker even for the police, filing law suits and complaints, evicting tenants, riding the men at the mill, and putting moves on women all over town." In fact, Maddox is a monster, as is their mother, and the girls must fight hard against these two to keep their bearings.
Readers are bound to notice that "The Silver Star" echoes Jeannette Walls' memoir, "The Glass Castle." The poverty, the hunger, the plain nuttiness of adult authority figures are here again. But "The Silver Star" is more forgiving. Uncle Tinsley stoically bears the loss of his fortune and his mill, and across town Aunt Al holds her family together despite serious poverty. In such a place, do two defenseless girls have a fighting chance? Maybe that's why "The Silver Star" is fiction, and "The Glass Castle" the demoralizing truth.