It’s the summer of 1959 and ten-year-old Sally O’Malley and her sister Troo are on summer vacation. Their daddy recently died in a car crash and their mother quickly remarried a nasty piece of work named Hall, a shoe salesman who prefers the bottle to being a husband or surrogate father.
With the bad luck Mother was having with her husbands, Troo and me figured that one of the reasons she had married Hall so fast after Daddy died was because he didn’t look like he’d decease anytime soon, with his muscles and wavy Swedish hair and that tattoo on the top part of his arm that said MOTHER. Nell said that tattoo must have impressed the hell right out of Helen. And maybe it had right after Daddy died. But now Mother was stuck with Hall because if you were a Catholic you couldn’t get a divorce unless you wanted to go straight to hell and burn for all eternity. If you were a Catholic, Granny said, the only thing you could do if you didn’t want to be married anymore was to pray really hard for a certain shoe-selling louse to get run over by a bus on his way to work.
When their mother Helen falls ill with a mysterious staph infection and ends up in hospital for a prolonged stay, the O’Malley sisters are left in the not so secure care of Hall and their older half-sister Nell, who is so busy with her boyfriend Eddie that she can’t seem to get any food on the table for her little sisters, except for maybe some tuna noodle casserole, but she burns it when she does. So Sally and Troo are on the loose in their neighbourhood where they know exactly whose house to show up at during dinner time and where they’re busy preparing themselves for the annual 4th of July celebrations. However, what’s truly disturbing them is that there’s a murderer and molester of little girls at large on Vliet Street during this summer, the summer when everyone started locking their doors.
Junie Piaskowski and Sara Heinemann have been found dead, almost a year apart, with their small bodies molested and strangled, and Sally is convinced that she’s next. She’s particularly suspicious of Officer Dave Rasmussen, who all the adults around her insist is a good egg, but she’s sure that he’s the killer. When Sally eventually finds out the truth about Rasmussen, it changes her life forever.
Sally made a promise to her daddy before he died and swore that she would look after her sister Troo, whose real name is Margaret and nicknamed Trooper because she always behaves like one. Sally admires her sister because she’s fearless, funny, popular, and everything that Sally thinks that she isn’t. In fact she’s a Troo genius. Sally is the moral compass in this tale in which most of her elders, except for her black Southern Baptist best friend Ethel Jenkins, who lives with Mrs. Galecki, don’t pay attention to what their children have to say.
The secondary characters of Ethel Jenkins, Mrs. Galecki’s son Mr. Gary who visits from California, Rasmussen, the skinniest kid in the world: peeping Mary Lane, Fast Suzie Fazio, “Mongoloid” Wendy Latour and her evil brother Reese, Greasy Al Molinari, Sally’s landlady Mrs. Goldman, Henry Fitzpatrick and Sampson the gorilla at the local zoo, are wonderfully depicted but there are a whole cast of characters here who would feel as equally at a home in a John Waters movie as they would in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Whistling in the Dark was Lesley Kagen’s debut novel (hardcover published in 2007) and it was recommended to me by a friend of my mom’s. It took a while for me to get around to reading it but I’m really glad that I did because it’s a gem of a story with a narrative led by ten-year-old Sally in a language that’s as rich, humorous and imaginative as young Sally’s overactive imagination. Encompassing the themes of loss, both of people we love and the loss of our innocence in childhood, as well as fear – fear of our feelings, fear of what people think, and fear of the unknown – Whistling in the Dark is an immensely entertaining, clever and tender tale of relationships, mystery and discovery that will take you back to your own childhood, no matter what decade you grew up in.