Jean “Bean” Holladay, the seventh-grade narrator of Jeannette Walls’s latest book, is like Harper Lee’s iconic Scout Finch. Or like Scout Finch would have been, if instead of Atticus, she’d had an over-dramatic, self-centered, aspiring singer-songwriter mother who abandoned her, leaving nothing but frozen chicken pot pies behind.
Jeannette Walls’s writing is usually too grim for my taste, rife with neglectful parents and bad role models, but Bean’s chirpy optimism saved this book from being another lament to lost innocence. Even when a power-tripping middle-aged mill boss repeatedly tries to run her down with his car, Bean claims she “didn’t think about him all that much” and continues on her merry way. A supporting cast of quirky but kind extended family members further lightens the tone and provides Bean with the support and stability she lacks.
It takes special effort and delicate handling to manage genuine humor in a story involving sexual assault, racial tensions, absent fathers, attempted suicide, stolen money, and tire slashing. But Walls hits just the right tone with the delightful Bean, and the ending is highly satisfying. So let that console you and urge you on to the next chapter—and brace yourself, because it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse before it gets better.