My friend Ben says this is the best book of nonfiction he's read this past year, so I bought it yesterday and read it right through. It's about coming of age in the 1950s in a working class area of Hartford, Connecticut. Two things are gripping: ONE: Mary Ann's rapport with her older brother Tyler who is obsessed with World War II books and has never been to school a day in his life; TWO: her community's relationship with a serial predator who sexually molests and sometimes kills pre-adolescent girls.
The memoir is written in two tracks.
On the first track, chronologically we learn about Mary Ann's French and Italian relatives and her incredible bond with Tyler, an undiagnosed autistic, who is shunned by mainstream society. His acute sensitivity to sound means that even the telephone is swaddled so it doesn't upset him. When he is upset, he compulsively gnaws on his wrist until it bleeds. As an adult, Smith reflects that Tyler was her Boo Radley.
The second track reveals the backstory of Robert Malm, a serial predator born in California, who began assaulting pre-adolescent girls when he was only twelve. Their lives cross paths when, after he has served prison time in his twenties, he ends up working near Hartford. He attacks a 17-year-old girl who tells the police and then molests and kills a 10-year-old girl Irene (one of Mary Ann's classmates) when she insists she'll tell her mother. You are satisfied that he is suitably punished when Smith takes you step by step through his appeal ("I didn't mean to kill her.") and then to the executioner's chair where his end is horrific in order to save his eyes for donation.
Unbelievably gripping and honest, GIRLS OF TENDER AGE, is a must read.