There is something bewitching about children in the care of irresponsible, narcissistic or just plain selfish adults. Fairy tales and children's books are full of them, from the Brothers Grimm to Lemony Snicket. Nineteenth-century novelists from Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Brontë to our own Lucy Maud Montgomery well knew the narrative power of a child protagonist adrift. Contemporary fiction, perhaps as a result, has almost too many examples to count.
But with her new novel The Silver Star, American writer Jeannette Walls has established herself as the contemporary godmother of this sub-genre. Her reasons for owning it are both autobiographical and talent-related, and we will get to them in a moment.
But first, the convention itself. Why is the child-at-risk such a compelling and time-honoured literary lens? I suspect – and I say this as both a reader and former wide-eyed kid – it's because it makes us simultaneously want to save the fictional child and also become them. We abhor their neglected state and yet envy their innocence.
Child protagonists love their parent simply because their parent is the world – the only one they have ever known. In this way, the child-at-risk is an unreliable narrator, but one who is the opposite of a liar – an unknowing innocent oblivious to the dangers only we can see, be they emotional and lurking (as in the case of Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here or David Mitchell's Black Swan Green), or terrifying and physical (as in Heather O'Neill's Lullabies For Little Criminals or most recently, Richard Ford's masterful Canada).
It's a crowded literary playground, this world of apprentice delinquents and neglected prodigies. But Walls, a novelist, journalist and former gossip columnist, gets a special place on the swing set. That's because she is also the author of The Glass Castle, a book that is probably the most widely read childhood-misery memoir in history.
That book, which spent 261 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and is currently in development as a film (with Jennifer Lawrence slated to play the lead), tells the story of Walls' childhood growing up with a pair of roving bohemian semi-vagrants, parents who prized art and hedonism above petite bourgeois concerns like food, schooling, housing and any semblance of stability or normalcy. Since writing it, Walls moved from her home in New York to a 200-acre farm in Virginia, where her formerly homeless mother now resides in the guest cottage. A real-life fairy tale – of sorts.
And now with The Silver Star, Walls moves confidently into narrative fiction (her second book, Half Broke Horses, was an account of her maternal grandmother's life, though awkwardly marketed as a novel), albeit with familiar themes. Our girl is Bean, a plucky younger tween and sister to the more knowing adolescent Liz. We meet them growing up in the 1960s American Southwest as their mother roves from state to state in search of her dreams – or at least a boyfriend who isn't "a tire-kicker."
From the outset, we know that Bean and her sister are the wards of a not-so-stable guardian. "My sister saved my life when I was baby. Here's what happened," Bean tells us in the novel's first line. The anecdote that follows is a road map for the rest of the book: Mom, a black-sheep southern belle with musical ambitions and a wild streak, flees her family home, taking her two fatherless children with her. Three-year-old Liz gets strapped in the back seat, the baby (our own Bean) is left in the car seat on roof. It's only after toddler Liz alerts their mother to what has happened that she slams on the brakes.
The baby is fine, but the damage is done: "In the years afterward, whenever Mom told the story, which she found hilarious and acted out in dramatic detail, she liked to say thank goodness Liz had her wits about her otherwise that carrier would have flown off and I'd have been a goner." Liz, on the other hand, remembers the story "vividly, but she never thought it was funny. She had saved me. That was the kind of sister Liz was."
And it's not funny. Not when their mother makes up a fictional, music-producer boyfriend in Los Angeles or has a breakdown that results in her abandoning the girls for weeks on end with nothing but chicken pot pies to eat. It's not funny when the authorities come sniffing around (or "the bandersnatches" as they call them, an allusion to Alice in Wonderland) and the girls decide to jump on a cross-country bus to return to their mother's hometown in Virginia, or when their mother's brother, the eccentric Uncle Tinsley, makes them sleep in the barn.
It's not funny, and yet it's also far from depressing, in an upbeat girl's-own-adventure-story sort of way. Walls is masterful at setting a tone that is devoid of self-pity and full of ebullience at life's absurdities. As we follow Liz and Bean through their just racially integrated school in the deep small-town South, a series of odd jobs and ultimately a criminal trial that results in the unearthing of a series of deep family secrets, we learn all about their roots and more than a few primly meted-out lessons on the history of the South.
The Silver Star is a carefully crafted novel, so much so that it can be heavy-handed in foreshadowing, overly thick in its sentiment and morals. Unlike The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses it occasionally feels contrived, probably because, unlike the first two books, it actually was. But despite the occasional veering into schoolmarmishness and the odd overwrought plot point, the book is an involving and pleasurable read. In the end, we can't help but love these kids. And their narcissistic, irresponsible mother? Walls even helps us make an uneasy peace with her as well.
Leah McLaren is a Globe columnist.