What I Saw and How I Lied – Judy Blundell
I don’t generally pick up historical fiction for children or young adults because I don’t read books to be taught something and it’s harder to write for a younger audience without trying to explain things and put them in context. Having won the National Book Award wouldn’t except this book from that danger, but the idea behind it made it seem like I wouldn’t be reading an edifying story of America after the war.
The book starts out in New York in the heady, go-go period immediately following the end of World War II. Evie lives in Queens with her beautiful mother (a femme-fatale blond), her loving step-father (a neighborhood bigwig) and his prying mother. At 15, after years of hardship and barely scraping by, her biggest problem is her inability to “fill out a sweater.” When her stepfather, Joe, dashes them off to Florida for an impromptu vacation she doesn’t even stop to consider how strangely he’s behaving. Palm Springs is a ghost town at the tail end of summer. As they become friendly with a few other vacationers who bring with them an air of glamorous malice that Evie senses, it isn’t enough to stop her from getting carried away by it all. She also doesn’t see how her mother has been holding her back and how scared she is to see her daughter on the brink of womanhood. As Evie begins to blossom under the attentions of a former soldier she meets who has shady ties to her step-father, she also slowly pieces together what everyone has been hiding from her.
I really enjoyed this book but I think if it had been written as an adult book, I would have loved it. It was written as a flashback, but from not very far into the future. Evie has perspective about what happened, but she’s still a girl and not very far past the action. As things unfold, the reader senses where it’s going before Evie does and can see her naivete and enthusiasm interfering with her understanding. It’s very skillfully done and didn’t make me want to shout at her “the killer’s behind the door you silly girl!” especially since in effect, she was the one telling me the story. But I still would have liked the story better with the consideration and lack of immediacy that stories about teenagers written for an adult audience have. As a bildungsroman, if it had been written with more than just a few months of hard-fought perspective, it would have had more impact.
I read this in an evening, which isn’t always the best way to give a book deep consideration, but I think there are a lot of things about it that will stick with me. There is a palpable sense of malice and foreboding that doesn’t take away an understanding of Evie’s enjoyment of her adventure, but does cause you to wince at how slowly she’s realizing her part in a noir murder-mystery.