Thursday, July 17, 2014
Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen
I read Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen a few months ago after either Random.org or the recently discovered "choose a random book of yours" feature on LibraryThing ordered me to rescue it from bookshelf oblivion. For some reason, this almost always pays off for me. Maybe it's because I buy a lot of great books and then ignore them for years, so when Reading at Random resurrects them, it's like getting a great new book all over again, except this time I actually read it.
Anyhow, as you can see, I'm procrastinating because I barely remember the book, but it's time to get serious now. Whistling in the Dark is the story of sisters Sally and Troo O'Malley and the revelatory summer that changes their lives forever. Sally is ten years old in 1959, recently moved to Milwaukee with her mom and no-good stepfather after the death of her father in a car accident that left her uncle severely brain-damaged. During the summer of '59, she and her younger sister's lives are thrown into turmoil when her mother reports to the hospital for gallbladder surgery that ends in a staph infection that keeps her hospitalized, in fear for her life, for much of the summer. With their mother hospitalized, their stepfather on a more or less permanent drunken bender, and their older sister too occupied with her boyfriend and beauty school to care, Troo and Sally are free to run wild in their Vliet Street neighborhood. To add to the perils of the summer, a murderer and molester is still at large, one who has already killed two girls. Sally, known for her overactive imagination, is sure she knows who the killer is and she's also sure of one other thing - he's coming for her next.
Even though it sounds like one of those books that is an unrelenting downer, there is so much to love about Whistling in the Dark. First, there's Sally, whose precocious, over-imaginative narration staves off the darkness that threatens to overtake the book. Sally's strong in a way she doesn't realize yet, and her narration, carefully pitched between her laughable imaginings and the true seriousness of the situation, is really what makes this book live and breathe. Then there's Troo, Sally's little sister, who seems both younger and older than her years, a tonic to Sally's overactive imagination, fiercely competitive, and an engine behind the clever ideas that make the pair's summer go. Finally, there's the pair's Vliet Street Milwaukee neighborhood in summer, a place that Kagen brings to life with an abundance of entirely three-dimensional supporting characters as well as the endless days on the playground, staying up late, and competing in sack races and bike-decorating contests at the community's Fourth of July block party that make a kid's summer days go by.
Whistling in the Dark is a book that defies categorization or generalization. Looking at it from one direction, it's a thriller. There's a murderer at large lurking in an otherwise picturesque neighborhood, and Sally's overactive imagination constantly working to conjure up who it might be gives the book an urgency. It's not just a thriller, though, it's a story about sisterhood, one about strength, trust, and loyalty. It's a book that provokes nostalgia with its characters that become the stuff of hometown legends. Most of all, though, it's a coming-of-age story for Sally who learns that sometimes clinging to that childhood "overactive" imagination can be a saving grace to us all.
(Behold, this book came from my very own collection. No disclaimer for you! Muah!)