Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Little Girl Lost
A review by Reeve Lindbergh
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, the author of eight novels, has written a memoir that is
at once entertaining and troubling. She alternates her own experiences as a child
growing up in 1950s Hartford, Conn., with chapters on Robert Nelson Malm, who
was tried and executed for the rape and murder of one of her fifth-grade classmates.
The memoir chapters are matter-of-fact, often very funny and warmly intimate.
But the Malm narrative is impersonal, a stark and detailed recitation of fact.
To go from one style to the other can be disconcerting, but constructing a divided
narrative may have been the only way the writer could bring herself to tell
this tale. Smith grew up in a socioeconomic class described by her father as
"Working Stiffs." She had French and Italian immigrant grandparents
and was raised in what today surely would be called a dysfunctional nuclear
family, though in the 1950s such terms did not exist. When the author's mother
yanked on her daughter's arm so hard that the humerus broke, there was no talk
of abuse, just the whispered comment, "Florence is on the verge of a
nervous breakdown ."
Her gentle father worked at a ball-bearing factory and dedicated his life to
the care of his son, Smith's brother Tyler, who was labeled retarded or crazy
throughout his youth, despite a phenomenal memory for World War II military
history. (Years later, Smith learned that Tyler was an autistic savant.) The
family members went "half-mad" accommodating his aversion to noise.
No school friends were permitted to visit the home, and everyone in the family
refrained from laughing, crying or even responding to pain out loud.
Most children take their family circumstances for granted, whatever those circumstances
are: in this case, a brother who bites his wrist bloody if he hears loud sounds,
a mother who was fired from her first job because she got married, a grandmother
who died having her 12th baby because the priest said birth control was "a
filthy, disgusting practice and a mortal sin besides." All of these difficulties
can be folded into a child's accepted version of normal family life, at least
until she comes of age and learns otherwise.
Murder is different, especially the murder of a shy 11-year-old friend, who
shared her jump rope in the school yard and ate leftover golabkis for breakfast.
The brutal killing of Irene Fiederowicz crashed through the author's neighborhood
and childhood like a brick through a window, leaving shattered lives and silence.
"GIRL, 11, STRANGLED WITH HER OWN SCARF," screamed the headlines
in the Hartford Times on the day the crime was discovered, but Smith's fifth-grade
teacher instructed her class, "There will be no speaking of Irene."
Talk was forbidden, newspapers were kept from children, the victim's desk was
removed from its row in the classroom, and the other desks were rearranged,
as if Irene had never existed at all.
"Irene was killed twice," Smith writes, "murdered by a horrific
man, and then erased by the era that was the fifties -- all who needed to talk
about her silenced." As an adult -- first in a psychology class in college,
then in an article for the Hartford Courant, now in this memoir -- Smith has
resurrected the crime that seared her childhood, and Irene has emerged again.
The author exposes every fact in obsessive detail, from the square knot used
to secure Irene's scarf around her neck to the graphic eyewitness accounts of
Malm's death by electrocution.
Smith claims that in writing this book she hoped to "build a memorial
to Irene." In fact, she has built a memorial to her brother, to her childhood
and to the truth. With intelligence, disarming humor and deep affection for
the families and the neighborhoods of the 1950s, Girls of Tender Age
speaks eloquently on behalf of children and confronts the crippling silences
that damage us in any era.
Washington Post Book World gives
readers comprehensive literary coverage, including reviews, news briefs,
and guest essays from authors.
It's a weekly package of reviews, essays, and features on what's hot in the
literary world and can also be seen on WashingtonPost.com. Click here
for additional reviews and live web chats with reviewers.