Paying the Price

A pair of teenage girls fights to bring a town bully to justice.

     Jeannette walls knows all about secrets. As a gossip columnist for both New York Magazine and MSNBC, she rubbed shoulders with East Coast glitterati and pried for dirty little secrets that would make interesting sound bites. But she had a secret, too: A childhood of homelessness and catastrophe, and a version of love she thought would alienate her new friends. Then one day Walls saw her mother rooting around in a dumpster and ducked down in her car to avoid being seen. That evasive action and what it signaled about herself shamed Walls more than anything else, so finally she stopped running from her vagabond past and embraced it instead, disclosing the tale of her upbringing in a memoir called The Glass Castle. As she basked in the relief of having unburdened herself, the memoir spent five years on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

      Now the best-selling memoirist has shifted gears to try her hand at fiction. In delving into the same questions that ruled her own life—whether to expose or bury a disturbing secret—Walls has penned a fantastic novel that explores the consequences of honesty and the many ways truth can be distorted. In The Silver Star, two teenage sisters, Liz and Bean, are left alone while their delusional mother runs off to try to make it as a singer-songwriter. They show up unannounced on their Uncle Tinsley’s doorstep.

     The kids seek jobs in town and get hired by Jerry Maddox, a foreman from the town’s factory. He hires them to babysit, clean his house, and help out with his side business in real estate. They soon discover Maddox is the town bully and, when Liz barely escapes a rape attempt by Maddox, Uncle Tinsley says to tell no one and just forget about it. Bean pressures Liz to press charges, and the story burns through the small town. Trash is dumped on their lawn, the girls become the butt of jokes, and Maddox runs Bean into the ditch whenever he sees her walking on the road.

     Cathartic as her own unburdening was, Walls still realizes that there are reasons why people keep secrets and that revealing them often comes with a price. “When you’re faced with a sexual predator,” says Walls, “no matter what you do, the results can be bad. If you pretend it didn’t happen, then you’re going to kick yourself for letting him get away with it. If you pursue it, you’re exposing yourself to embarrassment and retaliation. It’s just a dilemma no matter what you do. So this book is largely about that.”

     Amping up the battle between Maddox and the girls is the backdrop this story is set against: small-town Virginia in the 1970s during the first year of forced integration. The school’s atmosphere is fractious, just waiting for a spark to explode. “I thought it was a fascinating setting where people are really dealing with what’s right and what’s wrong and what they’ve grown accustomed to,” says Walls. “Bean and Liz have their own personal dilemma about what to do, but the larger environment is also questioning what is the right thing to do. How do they move forward? How do they accept the change?”

     Walls presents situations where, no matter what actions are taken, someone will be unhappy. Though integration is a positive social change, the whites in the story don’t want to share their school with the blacks, and the blacks want to remain at their previous school where they occupied roles not open to them at the new school.  

     As for capturing the feel of rural Virginia, that was no problem for the former entertainment reporter from the Big Apple. She relocated several years ago to Orange County, where the slower pace of life has taken some bite out of the admitted yard dog. “I’m crazy in love with Virginia,” she says. “As much as I love New York City, it doesn’t bring out the best in me; it brings out a side in me that is not that attractive. I’d like to think that I won’t pick a fight, but I will never back down from a fight. The people here are so nice. It took a little adjusting. People in the grocery store want to know how you’re doing, and my first reaction was, ‘Who wants to know?’”

     What fans want to know is what she’s working on next. While nothing is currently in the pipeline, Walls does not seem the sort to sit on her hands. The only thing that is certain is that if she does write anything else, be it fiction or not, it will include oddball characters.

     “One of the differences between the North and the South is that in the North, they put the crazy aunt up in the attic, and in the South, they put a fancy hat on her and put her in the parlor,” Walls says. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m happy living in the South. We just love our eccentrics down here. We show them off and write books about them. Somebody once said to me, ‘Maybe you should stop writing about crazy people.’ I said, ‘What else do I know? We write what we know, and this is my world!’”

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked

by James Lasdun, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.00

In this true story, Lasdun recounts how a former student begins to flirt with him online. When he rebuffs her, letting her know he is happily married, her puppy love quickly turns to hate. She wages a campaign of email and online harassment against Lasdun, his publisher, his agent, his employers and anyone else connected to him, smearing his name with lies that, though unfounded, still raise eyebrows and get others wondering. A must read for anyone who has any sort of online presence.

The Civil War and American Art

by Eleanor Jones Harvey, Yale University Press, $65.00

In this richly illustrated coffee table book, Eleanor Jones Harvey showcases the photography and art of the Civil War. Enriched by firsthand accounts of soldiers, former slaves, abolitionists and statesmen, Harvey’s research demonstrates how these artists used painting and photography to reshape American culture. Departing from the European convention of glamorizing battlefield heroes, American painters dispensed with illusion and presented the grim realities of conflict in their art of the Civil War.

The Third Son

by Julie Wu, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95

Set in post-WWII Taiwan and America, The Third Son is a coming-of-age story of a bright boy, beaten and repressed throughout his childhood due to cultural prejudices, who manages to gain passage to America to earn a college degree. Most of his battles are waged against his own family, who treat him like a farm animal. In addition to lush text about Taiwanese culture, history and food, Wu showcases what the American ideals of freedom and self-worth mean to immigrants and how hard they will fight to achieve them.

Books to Die For

edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, Emily Bestler Books, $29.99

Part reading guide and part literary examination of the best mystery novels ever written, this 537-page tome begins with Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 novel The Dupin Tales and continues through Mark Gimenez’s 2008 novel The Perk. Each recommended book is introduced in an essay written by one of today’s best-selling authors, providing a two-pronged sense of satisfaction. We gain insight into these masterworks as well as the story of how they inspired and affected a new crop of writers.

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