Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen

The story of a summer in the young lives of Sally and Troo O’Malley is what you get in Whistling in the Dark. But more than that, you get a close knit community, the characters of which are created vividly by Lesley Kagen so that you have a small composite picture of a child’s life growing up in Milwaukee in the late 1950s. There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird in Kagen’s story but the humour which crackles on every page through Sally’s narrative, the narrative of a 10 year old girl, makes it different.

Whilst also having the day-to-day lives of Sally and Troo to follow, which are entertaining on their own, we also have Sally’s concern about who the person is who is terrorising their neighbourhood, murdering and molesting young girls. She is convinced that she knows who it is but she has been charged with having an overactive imagination so the likelihood of anyone believing her theories are minimal. She is also convinced that she will be next.

I really liked this book. I liked the character of Sally who is a nice girl, sensitive and caring and desperate to protect her little sister, Troo, who is a bit of a handful. Kagen speckles Sally’s narration with naive misunderstandings of pronunciation and others, which show her lack of life experience, and give the storytelling an authentic feel. I think that this can be quite difficult to emulate but Kagen does it very well.

The community that Kagen has her girls inhabit is lively and full of people from all walks of life from Italian immigrants to Holocaust survivors to upstanding policemen and priests with secret pastimes. Again, her characterisation is spot on as this world was real to me as I was reading it, full of good folks and bad folks and folks who are somewhere in the middle.

It also evolves well, covering family secrets and the hopes that young girls have for the life they live now as well as the one they hope to have in the future. It is right that the novel culminates in the revealing of the killer and there is a sense that despite many unexpected upsets, the girls will be alright; that stability for them is just around the corner.

A good read and a must for readers who like tales of gutsy children, showing resilience through hardship.

This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery.

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