The summer of 1959 is idyllic. The air is thick, the days are long. Children play “Red Light, Green Light” and “Red Rover,” and families enjoy picnics and car trips. The Fourth of July is a day-long celebration with a bicycle-decorating contest, Eskimo pies and juicy watermelon slices. For Sally O’Malley and her sister, Troo, this summer is the last of their childhood, a summer that holds the vestiges of their innocence. The summer their mother became sick. The summer their stepfather abandoned them. The summer a man stalked, molested and murdered 10-year-old blond girls. Just like Sally.
Plot Overview: Abandonment, Imagination and Spunk
Vliet Street in Milwaukee is a hodgepodge of ethnicities. German, Irish and Italian Catholic families live in duplexes, sharing walls, meals and church services. For the O’Malley sisters, Vliet Street is home. When their mother walks off to the hospital at the beginning of the summer – and remains near death until August – Sally and Troo are left to their own devices. True to the adage “it takes a village,” neighbors and friends step up to make sure Sally and Troo aren’t running wild.
In their mother’s absence, Sally takes on the role of little mother, ensuring that all of Troo’s needs are met. She’s protective and compassionate and always gives in to the (sometimes selfish) desires of her little sis. Sally is naturally nurturing, but she also made a promise to her Daddy to take care of the family.
Sally’s father, to whom she remains devoted, died in a car crash not long ago, and she’s still sad over the loss. Compounding the residual grief is her belief that Rasmussen, a police officer who carries a photo of her in his wallet, is the murderer and molester terrorizing Vliet Street. Although everyone else, including Troo, tries to convince her otherwise, Sally is sure. And she believes Rasmussen is coming for her next.
Criticisms and Compliments
Whistling in the Dark, a story of loss, of naiveté, of humor, is a wonderfully nostalgic look at life in the 1950s. It has shades of good and evil, of right and wrong, of suspense and pure hilarity. And Sally O’Malley is the story’s true North, a bright and shining star. As the narrator, she is precocious, observant and endearingly naïve; every conclusion she makes deserves a pitying “oh, honey.” But her musings are charming and funny and so poignantly innocent. For example,
“‘Fast Susie goes to second base,’ Troo said.
What the heck was she talking about? Everybody knew that Fast Susie didn’t like baseball and what did baseball have to do with the sex?” (page 62)
But what makes Whistling in the Dark so engrossing is the juxtaposition of innocence and perversion. Kagen explains in the conversation guide that she, like Sally, was 10 years old in 1959, and she, like many of her friends, view that era as blissful; however, her friends also mention having had a “funny uncle” or being flashed by a grown man or assaulted. Such things, at the time, were swept under the rug. So almost in tribute of those girls, those who were painfully innocent but exposed (sometimes literally) to acts far beyond their understanding, Whistling in the Dark gives the victim a voice. And Sally has quite a voice.
- Kagen, Lesley. Whistling in the Dark: A Novel. NAL Trade, 2007 ISBN 9780451221230