I had been holding off on reading this book because it’s the last of Walls’ books for me. I read both her memoir (Glass Houses) and “true-life novel” about her grandmother (Half Broke Horses) and loved them. Each deals with whip-smart children growing up, rather than being raised, in households where the adults are too preoccupied with their own needs. I normally don’t read book jackets to avoid spoiler-y details but there is a terrific quote in this one that completely sums up this author: “supremely alert to the abuse of adult power.”
Walls’ books offer plucky heroines wise beyond their years because they have to be. The adults in their lives are generally absent, manipulative or both. They can also be physically abusive as well. The neglect is there and Walls doesn’t make excuses for it, but tends to emphasize the tenacity of her young characters over the abuses that they suffer. She chooses, like her own story, to focus more on their ability to overcome.
This novel isn’t written about Walls’ family, but follows the same themes of her earlier works. Here, two sisters are being raised by a single mother focused on her “music” at the expense of caring for her children. When she disappears for longer than her other occasional jaunts away from home, fifteen year-old Liz Holladay and twelve year-old “Bean” begin to worry. Living off pot pies purchased with the $200 their mother left them, the two continue to attend school as if nothing has happened until social service workers show up at the house. Fearing they will be separated and put into foster care, they decide to seek out the only relative that they can remember. Travelling cross country by bus from California to Virginia, Liz and Bean hope that their mother’s brother and his wife will take them in until their mother returns.
Liz has vague, but pleasant memories, of her aunt and uncle while “Bean” was just an infant when they left town. When the girls show up on the doorstep, they learn that their aunt has died and their uncle is an eccentric hoarder who rarely leaves his house. The Holladay family, who were once important business owners in Byler have since sold the mill and no longer hold the status they once did. Desperate to carve out some kind of stability, the girls move in with their Uncle Tin and begin to navigate the small Virginia town steeped in their family history and its transgressions.
Walls’ tackles issues of mental illness, predatory behavior, familial expectation and race. While there is a lot of “big picture” stuff going on, all of it is filtered through “Bean,” a twelve year old powerhouse who manages to be pragmatic and optimistic in the worse of circumstances. Walls has created a 1970’s era “Scout” with “Bean” and while that could come off as heavy handed, Walls manages to pull it off.
I do have to say that this is my least favorite of her three books, but I have come to really love Walls voice. Thematically, her books are very similar, but each has such vivid and off beat characters that I can forgive that. While her memoir/creative non-fiction books are more appealing to me, I torn through this book very quickly, rooting for the characters, sharing in their triumphs and worrying about their well being. At this point, I am just too smitten with Walls to really be objective. Whatever she puts out there, I’m reading it.