Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The End of Innocence: Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn

Without turning on the light, he...glances at his dim reflection in the mirror. A pale oval in the shadows, expressionless. The kind of face nobody remembers.

He smiles at himself. The man you meet at the top of the stairs, that's who he is: the man who isn't there.

The man you should pay attention to, the man you shouldn't offend. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the man who isn't there.

It is June of 1956. The last day of Nora's junior year is dawning. "Tutti Frutti" is on the radio, and Nora has high hopes. This summer she will do something exciting--get a tan, lose her nickname as "Long Tall Sally," and meet a tall boyfriend at the beach. The party the night before fuels her hopes: with her best friend Ellie, she has her first beer and gets a quick kiss from Charlie, a boy too short for her but who seems to like her more than a little. The whole gang, friends who had known each other since grade school days, laugh, dance, flirt, and neck a little. Her schoolmate Cheryl dances the dirty boogie with her new boyfriend Ralph, freshman Bobbie Jo flirts with all the boys, and Nora feels like she's a real teenager now.

Then Cheryl's ex-steady, Buddy, crashes the party and confronts her, and when Cheryl rejects him in front of everyone, he curses and grimly shouts that he'd like to see her dead. Suddenly there is a dark shadow over the carefree night.

It's a world right out of "Happy Days," girls in full crinolined skirts, boys in plaid shirts and crewcuts, moms who make dinners of meatloaf and mac and cheese, dancing to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry, and looking forward to a summer of days at the beach and twilight parties in the community center dancing to stacks of 45s.

That sunlit summer ends the next morning when Cheryl and Bobbie Jo are found shot, hidden in the bushes in that same woods, on their walk to school for report card day. On their bodies is a chilling note:

"and how do you like your blue-eyed girls
Mister Death?"

Nora and Ellie realize that if they hadn't overslept, they too would have joined Bobbie Jo and Cheryl on that walk to school, that they, too, would have been among Mr. Death''s blue-eyed girls.

Buddy is the obvious suspect and is immediately arrested, but his gun proves not to be the murder weapon, and he is finally released. Most of the town believes that he is the murderer, but one look at his face at Cheryl's burial tells Nora that he is not. Her doubts drive a wedge between herself and her friends, leaving Nora frightened and friendless for the first time since she and Ellie became inseparable. If Buddy is not the killer, she knows, someone else is, someone that no one suspects, but someone who surely knows who she is.

For the first time in her life, Nora confronts the question of evil--how the God she has known from her parochial school days can allow the murder of two young girls, girls she believes had never hurt anyone. She tries to deal with her doubts, but finds no answers in going to confession, no answers from the adults who recite the same lines that you can't know the purposes of God. Nora feels her world shifting beneath her.

I want to go back to last summer. I want Cheryl and Bobbie Jo to be here. I wish I were still a Catholic and believed in God and thought the world was a safe place and nothing bad happened to people you know.

That Nora is as dead as Cheryl and Bobbie Jo. The bullets hit her, too. They hit Ellie. They hit Charlie. The bullets hit all the kids in Ellie's neighborhood, they hit mothers and fathers and little sisters and brothers. They hit Buddy, too, maybe hardest of all, but nobody cared.

"Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee," said John Donne, and in her new coming-of-age novel, noted author Mary Downing Hahn's Nora grows into a deeper and darker understanding of the ways of the world. Hahn, author of such lauded books as Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story, Promises to the Dead, Deep and Dark and Dangerous, and All the Lovely Bad Onesand The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story, is a master of the sunshine and shadow novel, books part mystery, part thriller, part deep-themed works which deal with the unknowns of life, a writer who knows how to get beyond the mystery to the meaning beneath. Page turners which haunt the reader's mind long after the last page is done, Hahn's books are sometimes spooky, always haunting, and yet somehow uplifting.

Based on a real episode in her own otherwise halcyon high school days, Hahn's Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2012) tells the familiar story of how a thoughtless remark between classmates can turn into a life-shattering experience not merely for the victims themselves, but all who are involved, even the guilty. This one is not to be missed.

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