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“Whistling in the Dark” by Leslie Kagen

While browsing the “Books for Sale” used book room at our library recently, I discovered a treasure.  I didn’t know it at the time, but when I picked up this book and read the back cover, I was intrigued: 

“It was the summer on Vliet Street when we all started locking our doors” …  Sally O’Malley made a promise to her daddy before he died.  She swore she’d look after her sister, Troo.  Keep her safe.  But like her granny always said, actions speak louder than words.  And Sally would have to agree with her.  Because during the summer of 1959, the girls’ mother is hospitalized, their stepfather abandons them for a six-pack, and their big sister, Nell, who was left strict instructions to take care of them, is too busy making out with her boyfriend to notice that Sally and Troo are on the loose.  And so is a murderer and molester.

Highly imaginative Sally is pretty sure of two things.  Who the killer is.  And that she’s next on his list.  If nobody will believe her, she has no choice but to protect herself and Troo as best she can, relying on her own courage and the kindness of her neighbors.

“Funny, wise and uplifting, “Whistling in the Dark” is a story of two tough and endearing little girls … and of a time not so long ago, when life was not as innocent as it appeared.” 

Born and raised in the greater Milwaukee area, the Vliet Street setting instantly caught my attention.  Thinking that there could be several Vliet Streets in our nation, I quickly skimmed through a few of the pages and found other clues that confirmed that this is a story that, indeed, takes place in the streets of Milwaukee during the summer of 1959.  I saw Washington Park mentioned, Samson, the beloved zoo gorilla, the Milwaukee Braves baseball team.  Now, even though I wasn’t born in 1959, I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to realize that I had stumbled onto gold!

My mother moved from a farming community to Milwaukee when she was just a girl.  One of her most harrowing tales from that time was a story she shared with all of her own children, as a warning about “the friendly stranger”.  Back in those days, children were allowed to roam about more freely than they are today, and one day she and her friend went to the old Milwaukee Public Museum.  They were little girls.  They soon became aware of a stranger following them around the museum.  A tall man was lurking behind them, hiding in the shadows.  No matter where they went and how long they stayed there, there he was, hanging back behind them.  The girls were terrified, but true to so many bad decisions we make when we’re young, instead of telling an employee what was happening, they ran out together as fast as they could, fortunately leaving the man behind.  Children were brought up to not speak unless spoken to in those days and they were afraid a museum guard might not believe them.  My mom still got chills when she relayed the story as an adult.

Sally O’Malley faces very similar circumstances in “Whistling in the Dark”.  Although she’s only 10 years old, Sally has a lot of wisdom and a great heart, but she also has what is labeled as an overactive imagination and told by a doctor that she needs to stop “being that way”.  Medical advice was not the same back then!

So when, after a series of events, some heartbreaking, others scary and sad, Sally finds herself being followed by someone, she is afraid to report it.  They’ll say it’s just her wild imagination, which everyone in the neighborhood knows about.  Nevermind that two young girls about her age were found murdered and molested in her neighborhood recently.

This book combines intrigue, suspense, drama and even some humor in an easy to read, page-turning classic.  It’ll make you smile, it will make you angry, it will make you sad as well as sending chills down your spine.  It also challenges the labels we put on each other; Sally is afraid to share what’s happening to her because of her overly-active imagination “affliction”, Wendy has Downs Syndrome, so she’s written off by many in the community, Mary has told some lies and is a schemer, and therefore is never to be believed again.  The author, Lesley Kagen, does a beautiful job of compelling us to look behind the labels and discover some fascinating people.  I literally couldn’t put the book down and read well into the wee hours of the morning.  It should be noted that as of the time of the writing, this talented author was a local gal, living in Mequon, Wisconsin.  Although many times I don’t bother to read the conversation with the author at the end of a book, this time I did and was fascinated to learn about the inspirations behind the story and the characters, as well.

Admittedly for me the tie-in with my mom’s own experience in Milwaukee as a child, the fact that my grandparents lived near this neighborhood, my brothers grew up as huge Braves fans and I personally have fond memories of Samson, the powerful gorilla and his eyes that seemed to penetrate my soul, made this a must read. If you like suspense, and if you have ties to mid-century Milwaukee, this book is for you, too.  Even if you have no ties to Milwaukee, “Whistling in the Dark” is a great read and available in our library system.

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