Friday, August 26, 2011

Uncovering the Secrets of Lesley Kagen's Vliet Street Gang of Milwaukee, Plus Another Secret About Reading Event Books--Event is 9/14, 7 pm.

You may have noticed in the last email newsletter that I made reference to Lesley Kagen's new book Good Graces, with perhaps a little too much focus on the Nancy Drew. Ms. Kagen wrote back and noted I wasn't quite on the mark.  It was my flippant nature and noted the Nancy Drew references in the story.  But it struck me that I hadn't done justice to Ms. Kagen's story.  Hey, we're hosting an event at Boswell with Ms. Kagen on Wednesday, September 14. I don't want folks having the wrong expectations for Good Graces.  So what do I do?

There's no other option--the towering pile of books to be read was tossed aside and I moved Good Graces to the tippy top. As you imagine, I wish I could read every book for every event we host, but I'm simply unable to do it. I read about six books a month, and I would say four tie into events.  One of the others is for our in-store lit group and the last one is something that is pretty much picked out of a hat. Out of a hat, yes, but if it's good, you'll no doubt see a blog piece on it someday.

But I digress.  Though I thought we'd have enough local coverage and other reads to read something from an upcoming event that was a bit more orphaned and needy, I had to make sure I had a handle on Kagen's story. And it's true, my Nancy Drew reference couldn't have been farther off the mark. 

The story starts with sisters Sally O'Malley and her sister Margaret "Troo", living on the west side of Milwaukee around 1960. They've already been through a lot of trauma.  They moved off the farm to the city.  Their dad died, and since Troo was playing peek-a-boo with him while he was driving, there are some guilt issues, and Troo is acting out.

Sally's had a better time of it.  It turns out that Mom's new boyfriend Dave the detective is her birth father.  But Troo's taking to calling Mom by her first name and swiping things from stores.

It's not that Sally plays Nancy Drew, mind you, though in both stories, there are a series of crimes, and Sally does come up with a suspect that she attempts to catch him, pretty much going outside the normal channels.  She's got her idea of justice, a child's idea, and I leave it to you to ponder the implications of that.

It's that Kagen in the novel, even moreso than in the first, has taken on the wide-eyed innocence of a child, and sort of plays off that innocence to look at our views of the past. From Happy Days (the fifties through the lens of the seventies and eighties) to the current obsession with some political and religious groups of returning to the good old days, we've been doing this forever.  As long as we are not reminded of the horrors of the past, we tend to idolize it.

But Kagen sees through that and tries to hint at what's really in the viewfinder.  Ethel the African caregiver is hardly accepted in the community and easy to target with wrongdoing.  Father Mickey, whatever he's doing, certainly was a bad egg in the past. The different ethnicities intermingle, but anyone who's not Catholic is an outsider.

What we are drawn to with Sally is that she's both an innocent child and incredibly mature.  She's got a depth of insight into character and is certainly not afraid to embrace the otherness of Wendy Latour, the neighborhood kid with what I assume to be Down Syndrome. She's sees and is comfortable with the differentness of Gary Galecki, and there's a hint of differentness about her pal Mary Lane too. She's not just any kid in the 1950s. She's Nancy Drew, our heroine, the modern astute, brave, open-minded, and empathetic person we all want to someday become. It wouldn't be a bad thing if we could also solve mysteries, but honestly, that's secondary, both to life and this story.

I'm glad to say Sharon also read Good Graces, and what a joy it is to have so many good readers at Boswell. Here are her thoughts on the new novel:

"Who knew that Milwaukee in 1960 could be such a dangerous place? In Lesley Kagen’s follow-up novel to Whistling in the Dark, we find out just how perilous it can be.

"Sally O’Malley and her sister, Troo, are still recovering from the sudden death of their father. Their neighborhood is hit with a string of burglaries, the escape of a bully from reform school, an orphan’s disappearance, and the suspicious behavior of a beloved priest.

"Sally is the voice of this novel, intelligent and funny, but also achingly naïve at times. Milwaukee natives will enjoy all the details of life in this city 50 years ago."

Kagen also let us know that she got a great write-up in Milwaukee Magazine.  Here's just an excerpt:

"Spend happy hours following the O'Malley sisters through the sweltering summer of 1960 on Milwaukee's West Side. This humorous, passionate novel of childhood is full of evocative local detail and the lives of wild, smart children."

Ms. Kagen's events in and around the Milwaukee area for Good Graces:

Thursday, September 1, 7 pm
Next Chapter, Mequon
This is a ticketed release party. Details here.

Tuesday, September 6, 7 pm
Books and Company, Oconomowoc
More with a click.

Our event at Boswell is Wednesday, September 14, 7 pm
2559 N Downer
It is a free event.
If I could find a box of Feeling Good Cookies, I'd bring them.

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