My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. This is a review of “Whistling in the Dark” by Lesley Kagen, which I actually “read” by listening to the audiobook version.
Hardcover: 297 pages
Publisher: New American Library (2007)
Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.6 x 1.2 inches
Summary of Book. “Whistling in the Dark” is set in the summer of 1959 in Milwaukee, and follows the adventures of ten-year-old Sally and her little sister Troo O’Malley. It’s not easy to categorize this novel…is it a murder mystery? Is it a coming-of-age story? Is it a period literary novel? When the novel opens, two young girls that the O’Malley sisters knew in Milwaukee have been molested and murdered within the last year–this dark fact is a lingering backdrop to the personal trials and tribulations that the O’Malley sisters face over the summer. The sisters’ mother is ill in the hospital, their stepfather is an unlikeable drunk who thankfully isn’t around much, and their older sister Nel spends most of her time with her boyfriend. Sally O’Malley narrates with a keen eye, a sensitive heart, a wonderful wit, and a fascinating regard for the people and circumstances around Sally that sometimes is wise and sometimes naïve.
The Audiobook Narrator. The author Lesley Kagen narrates her own book here, and I only wish that all narrators of audiobooks were as perfect as Kagen is. On reading up on Kagen, I learned that she had been in radio for years before writing “Whistling in the Dark,” and when you listen to Kagen, you can tell.
Not only does Kagen have a raspy, comfortable sort of voice, but she articulates well; she keeps the timing of her narration absolutely perfect, depending on the particular scene or the emotional state of the character speaking at the time. One thing’s for sure: Kagen is, quite literally, a master storyteller. It helps too, that this story is set in Milwaukee–you can hear Kagen’s native Milwaukee accent in the characters’ dialogue and in the young Sally O’Malley’s voice as the narrator of the story. I think that it can enhance the experience to hear an author herself read aloud her own words, but it’s extra special when the author has the voice and reading experience that Lesley Kagen does.
Poetically Written. I earlier alluded to “Whistling in the Dark” by Kagen as a literary novel because, structurally, it’s put together so well, but also because the words seem to flow off the tongue and often seem poetic. Not poetic in a self-conscious way, but rather in the earnest, gritty way that a ten-year-old girl’s thoughts would be as she’s pondering her troubles or considering those whom she loves. There are too many wonderful sentences to quote, but here are a few that struck me:
“And as I watched the car pull away toward the cemetery, the little white funeral flag waving good-bye, I felt blessed to be breathing, to have my heart beating.”
“Mary Lane was also the skinniest person alive. I mean, you have never seen a person who was not a pagan baby living in Africa who was this skinny.”
“If we could find Sara’s body, we’d probably get a reward and our pictures in the newspaper like Mary Lane did when she called in that fire she set.”
“I could smell pink peonies mixed in with the chocolate chip cookie smell coming from the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory. Mother was small up on the corner of North Avenue. I was sure that would be the last time I’d ever see her again because look what happened to Daddy when he was in the same hospital. So I started to yell to her to please come back! But then she turned the corner and was gone. And she didn’t come home in a week or so like she said.”
“Ethel Jackson was the cool side of my pillow when I had a fever.”
Nostalgic Setting. If you played outside as a kid in the summer with the other neighborhood kids, both during the day and at night after supper, then the nostalgic references in “Whistling in the Dark” to the children’s games of Red light Green light, of swinging on the playground, or just lazily walking to the zoo or the drugstore with your friends or siblings will probably bring back fond memories. They certainly did for me.
Kagen provides plenty of that era’s details to allow the reader to vividly immerse herself into the O’Malley sisters’ 1959 summer. “Splish Splash I was Taking a Bath” plays on a radio, carhops roller skate at the local burger joint, nine-year-old Troo starts smoking L&M cigarettes with their red and white packaging, the O’Malley girls are smitten with the “exotic” Evening in Paris perfume worn by some of the mothers, and much effort goes into decorating a bicycle for a competition on the Fourth of July.
Kagen does an excellent job making the time and place of this story quite vivid and real for the reader.
A Murder Mystery. Yes,“Whistling in the Dark” by Kagen is a murder mystery too, and I think a good one. Because Sally the narrator second-guesses herself so much, having been told by her elders that she has an overactive imagination, the reader is left second-guessing along with Sally as to who molested and killed those two girls before the story opens. When the murderer (or is it?) seems to be targeting Sally as well, the underlying darkness of the story builds, with the reader sensing Sally’s increasing vulnerability. There are a number of possible suspects, and I was kept guessing until the end.
What makes this an especially entertaining murder mystery is twofold. First, Kagen thoroughly develops the characters, so that the reader has a vested interest in, and really cares, what happens to them. Secondly, Kagen throws plenty of comic relief throughout, sometimes with a raunchy hand and sometimes with sarcastic witticisms. Kagen is a good writer, as also shown by how well she can write really funny stuff…there’s plenty of humor throughout “Whistling in the Dark.”
Varying Emotions Throughout. One minute I was laughing out loud at one of Sally’s wisecracks, and then three pages later, I was almost crying because of an enlightening but heartbreaking observation by Sally. That’s the way Kagen’s “Whistling in the Dark” rolls, as the reader hangs out with the O’Malley sisters during their mostly unsupervised summer. Uplifting, gritty, sad, bitter, funny, scary, and rowdy…this story has the entire spectrum of emotions. I think Kagen was able to pull off so much variation in the tone of this story because of the narrator Sally’s youth and her lack of adult supervision or guidance. Perhaps only a child who is coming of age like Sally O’Malley could realistically articulate such different emotions so seamlessly in a novel such as this.
Calls Up Other Classics. To avoid coloring my opinion, I did not read other reviews of “Whistling in the Dark” by Kagen prior to writing this review, but I’m betting there are others out there who have noted that this novel’s Sally O’Malley and the young girl Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” have numerous common traits. “Whistling in the Dark” also calls up some commonalities with Huck Finn while on his adventures. The young protagonist in “Ellen Foster,” a classic by Kaye Gibbons, is yet another character I’m reminded of. Something tells me that Kagen’s “Whistling in the Dark” is one of those books that slowly will earn a growing and admiring audience as time goes on, although perhaps not to the extent of the other novels I’ve mentioned here.
Conclusion. I highly recommend “Whistling in the Dark” by Lesley Kagen, especially in the audiobook format, only because I listened to this book instead of actually reading it. Will “Whistling in the Dark” come across as well when read instead of listened to? I can’t say, but my guess is that it will. I hope it will, because this is a novel that has so much going for it. I fell in love with Sally O’Malley’s rollicking quips about those around her, both children and adults. Her gritty determination to protect her little sister Troo, her palpable sadness over the loss of her beloved father, her earnestness and wisdom—all of these traits and emotions endeared Sally O’Malley to me. And during all this time, I also was swept up and pulled along by a dark and twisting mystery that subtly threatens to take away this endearing and fascinating character, or someone very close to her…
“Whistling in the Dark” by Lesley Kagen: I hope you’ll either read this novel or listen to the audiobook version.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.