“Write what you know” may be the most often repeated chestnut in the writing business. Jeannette Walls does it well. The first time I read one of her books, it was her memoir, The Glass Castle. Naturally, that was what she knew since she experienced it. The story pulled me in from the first paragraph when she frets, as a professional woman in a New York taxi, over whether she will be overdressed for the event she is attending only to have her reverie interrupted by the sight out the taxi window of her mother “rooting through a dumpster.” I was sucked in before the first page was finished and not released until the last page was complete.
Half Broke Horses, her second book, is on my list but not yet read. A hybrid that she calls a “true-life novel,” it is based on her grandmother’s life. She had intended it to be biographical but too many gaps existed in what she could learn to make a whole book. She filled in the holes with believable fiction.
When I saw that Jeannette had a novel out this year, I talked to our very cooperative church librarian who got a copy of The Silver Star and saved it for me to read first. [I generally don’t push ahead to get in the front of the line, but I make an exception for books.] Once again a dysfunctional artistic mother forms the impetus for her story – something Jeannette knew well.
She lured me in again with her first line. “My sister saved my life when I was just a baby.” Twelve-year-old Bean and fifteen-year-old Liz survive against all odds – also something she knew. As they deal with an uncle living on past glory who has not expected them to turn up and with the bullying foreman of the mill where they find work, I felt the danger and wanted to call out a warning of where the girls’ situation is leading. She held me in her grasp until the last sentence, “Every now and then a car passed and the driver slowed and the kids inside rolled down the windows and waved wildly at the sight of Liz and me bringing those big crazy birds back home.”
Now I’m itching to get sucked in to the Half Broke Horses which begins "Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did" and I’m watching for the next Jeanette Walls book to come out so I can have another chat with our church librarian. Or should I take turns and talk to my friendly public librarian who granted me the same favor with The Help long before it became a best-seller?