Twelve-year-old Bean and her older half-sister, Liz, are used to being left with a litany of chicken pot pies to eat. Charlotte, their wayward and unstable mother and a budding singer, songwriter and actress, travels to Los Angeles in search of another broken dream,
ensconcing her two girls in Lost Lake, a little town in the Colorado Desert of Southern California. Liz and Bean have learnted to shield themselves from their mother’s of tantrums and meltdowns. Charlotte loves to spend most of her time telling them how much she’s sacrificed and “what an ungrateful couple of parasites they are.”
The sisters are used to the long-distance phone calls and a career that had always taken up a sizable chunk of Charlotte’s time, but they aren’t prepared for Charlotte’s latest round of hysterics involving a record producer named Mark Parker, who is reportedly talking about how to jump-start her faltering career. Charlotte may be a loving mother, but she’s also crazy and self-centered, even when she exhibits a uniqueness and a childlike quality that is almost endearing.
While Liz has her mother's tendencies (and, at the same time, an ability to recognize this and escape from her demons), it is Bean, wise behind her years, who decides
that they will travel to Charlotte’s hometown of Byler, Virginia. The girls land on the doorstep of Mayfield, the house of kindly Uncle Tinsley, yet are not prepared for his reaction. He's both appalled and overjoyed that his nieces have traveled all the way across country. Liz and Bean prove to be industrious, cooking and cleaning and looking for jobs. Walls’s story is especially touching from the first-person perspective of Bean, who remains a constant source of inspiration to Liz and to Tinsley.
Mayfield is in sorry shape, and so is the town of Byler. No longer the thriving hub of Holladay textiles, over the past few years the town has seen its workers laid off. The new owners of the mill and
current manager Jerry Maddox are doing whatever they can to squeeze the last ounce of profit out of the place. Jerry has a reputation as a troublemaker, filing lawsuits and complaints and evicting tenants. He also has a reputation for putting moves on women all over town. The bad blood between Jerry and Uncle Tinsley is compounded by their deep disagreements over how the mill should be run.
Into this mix come innocent Bean and Liz, who readily adapt to their new situation, forming certain attachments to their new family--especially Aunt Al and Uncle Clarence, who intuitively understand the girls’ insecurities. Caught up in the vortex of Jerry Maddox and his manipulations, the girls must learn to once again rely on Charlotte, who returns Byler after learning that her daughters are under siege. After all these years, Charlotte is still desperate to live the life she has dreamt of. No way is she going to let her daughters grow up in this “finger wagging, narrow-minded town” where everyone whispers about her being the “illegitimate child of a hotheaded loom fixer.”
Walls describes ordinary life in a visually poetic, profound way that jolts the reader with its beauty and its raw power. The zeitgeist of this tale is the enduring quality of family relationships. There’s a trial, an inevitable clash with Maddox, tension at school from racial integration, Charlotte’s arguments with Uncle Tinsley, the powerful voices heard by beautiful, red-haired Liz, and also the town of Byler itself, which Walls portrays as a kindly place
filled with “hicks, rubes, crackers, and lint heads.”
Building her feel-good plot around Bean, Liz, Charlotte and Tinsley, Walls portrays them as realistic, strong, and independent, yet also limited by their shortcomings and the strictures of familial obligation. Her greatest skill is her mastery of dialog and presenting Bean as a self-aware survivor, especially when events move beyond her control. There is no denying the reality of small-town life in 1970.
The author perfectly captures the breadth of those who inhabit it, along with Bean's dreams, her heartbreak and her capacity to tolerate the unendurable.