Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Today's Debate. "Jeannette Walls is a Southern Novelist" versus "Jeannette Walls is a Western Novelist."

I want to start out here with a customer complaint. I sent out our email newsletter this week and I received a reply from a customer who hated The Glass Castle. She just didn't believe it, and started telling me a particular anecdote about a piano. Now I lived through the memoir craze, and several "true" stories that turned out to be not so true after all. James Frey is one that comes to mind, but the last decade had several, and at least one older one, Go Ask Alice, was also unmasked as made up. Here's a nice list from James Frater of his top ten. And another from The Rumpus, with Steve Almond looks at Greg Mortenson, and one that he himself questioned.

Jeannette Walls actually has much to say about these fake memoirs, but five years on, this book has stood the test of both professionals and amateurs trying to disprove the meat of the story (honestly, I don't care whether the piano is true or not). And Jeannette Walls was the highest profile person to return to the honored (Jack Kerouac's On the Road, to name one) tradition of saying, with her follow up, Half Broke Horses, that she started writing the book as nonfiction, but decided to make it a novel for various reasons.

So that's one debate that lingers on, but why is that woman on my email list talking about this when the new book, The Silver Star, is clearly a novel (and a fine one), though Walls has said that some of the material is inspired by the years the family lived in West Virginia? It's about Jean (known as Bean) and Liz, two sisters who've been moved around the country by their somewhat unstable mom. When their mom Charlotte Holladay takes off for a bit, Liz comes up with a plan to get them to their Uncle Tinsley in rural Virginia.

Tinsley is a bit eccentric (surpise) but the girls adjust as best they can, with Liz finding her father's family down the road a particular comfort. The problem is that the Holladays (Liz and Bean's mom's family) used to own the town mill and still think of themselves as the upper class, while the Tylers (Bean's dad's family) are poor millworkers.

Tinsley's lost control of the mill, which is now run by Jerry Maddox, a corpulent and somewhat crazed tyrant. It doesn't help matters that in order to make some extra money, Liz and Bean agree to work for Jerry doing odd jobs, without Tinsley knowing. Something happens, there's a big trial, and did I mention that while this is going on, the county is trying to integrate the high school?

If you're thinking To Kill a Mockingbird, that's a fair assumption. Race relations, a trial, a girl with a boy's nickname? But Walls cleverly circumvents that rut with some twists, and she plays with those comparisons when Bean's class reads Harper Lee's story, and it turns out both the white kids and the black kids don't like the book at all.

That said, she's clearly channeling her inner Southerner on this novel. I was reminded a lot of Kaye Gibbons, and thought a lot about the book Ellen Foster as I read The Silver Star. It was not just the quirky characters though, but the gothic atmosphere in the background--the abuse, the prejudice, the hint of violence around the corner.

But wait, Walls is not from the South. She can't be a Southerner. If anything, her upbrining is more Western, and the more I thought about it, her writing is more of that clean Western style that I have admired over the years. She's clearly a Western writer, right?

Or is the truth of the matter that Walls is the kind of writer that's hard to classify, like the Mississippi gothic novel that turns out to be penned by a Chinese guy from Queens?

Feel free to argue this out with us on June 20, 7 pm, at Boswell (which if you're reading this right away, is tomorrow). Or just don't think about the debate and just enjoy the book and especially Jeannette Walls, who is about as charming a speaker as you could hear. I have such fond memories of her past two visits to Milwaukee, first at the Downer store when it was a Harry W. Schwartz location, and then at Alverno College, when I had the pleasure of driving some of our friends from Eastcastle to the event. Let me just say, when you're shuttling the amazing "Three Bettys and a Miriam" around, it sticks with you forever!

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