Thursday, September 30, 2010

Girls of Tender Age

by Marry-Ann Trione Smith

I love love love this book. This is one of those completely engrossing books that I couldn't put down.

The first part of the book is filled with the matter-of-fact descriptions of a child. It's almost flippant, which makes the book all the more funny. Her innocence and misunderstandings are hilarious with a tinge of sadness, like when she doesn't want to tell her uncle she's sorry for the loss of his son because she thinks that means she was somehow responsible for his death. There's a real honesty and vulnerability to Smith's words. I respect that she opened herself up so much in this book.

What else I find amazing is Smith's brother, Tyler. Growing up unable to express emotion, unable to even make a sound when she burns herself on the toaster for fear of how Tyler will react seems awful. I think her professor's assessment of Tyler as a "manipulative lunatic" is harsh, but also true. But what is especially amazing is Tyler's brief explanation for some of his behavior:
          Tyler, what happens when you hear crying.
          He ignores me.
          Or sneezing?
          Nothing. I persist: Or laughing?
          I keep at him because he is only biting his wrist a little bit. Nibbling.
          Finally he says, A cloud of needles flies into my face and it takes me a long time to pull
          them out because they have barbs at the end.

Incredible. Honest and adept.

Smith's mother, on the other hand, I didn't care for so much. Smith doesn't paint a flattering picture of her mother. Her mother seems like the type of woman who shouldn't have children. Thank goodness for Smith's father. He broke my heart though. The way he took care of his younger sisters when his mother died so that the family could stay together, the way he was so unflappably devoted to caring for Tyler (a stark contrast to his wife).

There was plenty in the book that got a rise out of me. For one thing, the way Smith was taught in her catechism class that "The worst sin you can commit against an adult, particularly against your mother and father, is to ask Why?" That's terrible. How else is a child supposed to learn? That's dismissive parenting. I was also furious with the Hartford Police Department disbelieving Bob Malm's first victim, saying her strangulation marks looked like hickeys. Unbelievable. At the time it was "too difficult to prove that the teenager didn't victimize her rapist with her wiles." Unbelievable.

And, a small thing, but I never knew Hartford had so many firsts: electricity, female police officers. There's a lot to be proud of.

I do think Smith spends a little too long on the trial, appeal, and execution of Bob Malm. It gets a little bogged down. But once she switches back into memoir-mode it picks up again.

I was completely heartbroken over Tyler and Smith's father when the both had to be put into separate care facilities. And I was devastated when when they died. I had to stop reading and let it all sink in.

On a random note: I know the song Smith's mother sang to her grandchildren. We used to sing it at camp, but our version was a little different:

          A part of myself,
          What is this here?
          This is my boy-kicker, yeah Mama dear!

          Boy-kicker, Knee-knocker, Baby-bouncer, Bread-basked, Rubber-necker, Chin-chopper, 
          Boy-kisser, Soup-strainer, Nose-blower, Eye-blinker, Eye-browser, Sweat-browser, 
          That's what I learned in my school, yah-yah!

I think the best way to sum-up this book is with Smith's own words: "I am well trained in silence. Denial is my family's religion, my brother Tyler our god, and the Reverend Dr. Peale our pastor." There's more to this book than that, but I think those few sentences say a lot.

Definitely read this book.

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