Best-selling memoirist Jeannette Walls begins her latest novel, The Silver Star, with a curious quote from Oscar Wilde: ''The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.'' Walls made great hay with her memoir The Glass Castle, which described the incredible foibles of her family without ever burning them at the stake. But one imagines the act of exposure was emotionally costly, even as it made her career.
At heart Walls is a wonderful yarn-spinner and whether she's telling a true story or making one up, that demands generosity, humor, and imagination. Her tale opens in 1970, in the hopelessly named Lost Lake, Calif. Our plucky 12-year-old narrator, ''Bean'' Holladay, and her smart and sensitive sister, 15-year-old Liz, are used to enduring their flaky mother's frequent absences. When Mom seems to leave for good, Liz is determined to keep the sisters out of foster care. Using the $200 their mother left, the girls jump on a bus for rural Virginia. There they knock on the peeling door of a decaying mansion, and their estranged uncle, an odd and kindly man still mourning his family name's former glory, takes them in.
There's an inevitable Country Time Lemonade glow to portraits of small-town life. Bean's fingers get stained from blackberry picking, fresh peaches burst at the touch, the girls ride together on an old Schwinn. But as in classic childhood stories like Stand by Me and the old Reese Witherspoon movie The Man in the Moon, the roiling threat of tension and evil wrought by careless adults is ever present in Walls' novel. The sisters get a part-time job with the thuggish foreman of the local mill. ''His arms were thick as hams, his fingers were thick, too, and his neck was actually thicker than his head.'' Oh, girls, run.
This is a page-turner, built for hammock or beach reading. If it lacks a little of the raw shock and majesty of The Glass Castle, there's still much to savor and a young heroine to root for. Bean is a good, strong girl, pure of heart in a world that, as Wilde cautioned, is anything but simple. A-The Opening Line
''My sister saved my life when I was just a baby. Here's what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her....''