I am violating my own rule here. My rule is I don't review books by people I know well enough to hug.
I know Mary Hahn well enough to hug, and to kiss on the cheek. Both of which things I did last time I saw her, the day after I finished reading this book. I think you would, too.
Mary's an old friend of my parents - I think her first husband and my dad went to college together? Maybe mom was a bridesmaid? She and my mother were pregnant with their first children at the same time, and compared notes. Some time after those girls (one of them me) were born, she and my parents more or less lost touch.
Mary started working as a school librarian, and in the mid-1970's started writing novels for children. Mysteries. Ghost stories. And though most of these stories stay well within the range of "comfortably spooky" - excellent choices for middle-grade readers who crave just enough chill to keep them turning pages, but not enough to keep them up at night - that's still thirty-some years' worth of haunted houses and restless spirits, guilt, revenge, and loss.
And now we know why.
Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls is set in 1956, in Baltimore, in a toned-down Happy Days environment of sleeveless blouses, Revlon lipstick, and ducktail hairdos. Real Leave-It-To-Beaver territory. Making her way through this tepid time is Nora Cunningham, too tall and too thin for the '50's, too thoughtful and maybe too sensitive too. Nora sees everything around her through a lens of self-comparison: she examines her position on the girlhood popularity scale, agonizes over her lack of experience with boys, pays serious attention to her hair.
Which is to say - Nora is fifteen. There's an entry in my diary from May of 1980, when I was about the same age, listing my goals for the summer. I remember it clearly: "1. Get a tan 2. Get a man 3. Grow my nails." Are these simple goals, from a simpler time? No, they for damn sure are not. Did I achieve any of them that summer? Also no. Maybe I got a tan.
Even before Nora's early-summer days twist suddenly into nightmare, this book is an extraordinary book. This character is so naked to the reader, so painfully easy to identify with. Mary is going on seventy-five years old, but has seemingly shot body and soul back into the head of a teenage girl - reading Nora's thoughts is like dropping feet-first into a shockingly cold pool. I read a lot of damn YA, and very rarely do I encounter a character so convincingly inhabited.
Maybe that's it. Maybe Nora is haunted, like so many of Mary's other characters. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
What happens to Nora is what happened to Mary - two of her friends are murdered. Their bodies are found in the park just a little way from where Nora and her best friend Ellie are walking. Nora's shock, her fear, her anger play out in dozens of different ways, reverberating through the book and through her head. This disorder pushes her away from some people and pulls her closer to others - I supposed this is what people mean when they describe emotional events as "seismic." It's meticulously depicted, almost hypnotic. Entirely devoid of cliche.
And while Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls isn't strictly a "scary story" like most of Mary's other books, it is nonetheless horrific and suspenseful.
Not too many people can point to a single event that separates their childhood from the moment they begin to become adult. In Nora's case, and I suppose in Mary's, there is moment of violent awareness, like a shining guillotine blade, that severs everything the child knows - about people and their motivations, about friendship, even about God - from the things the adult will learn. Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls is like a time-lapse photograph of that moment. It unfolds over days and months, its magnitude dissipating only to swell again.
I reconnected with Mary at Book Expo a few years ago. She hadn't seen me in 40 years. I of course remembered her not at all - I'd been a toddler then - but I knew she was a friend of Mom's, and I certainly knew her work. I had been happily handing her books to thrill-seeking middle graders for years.
But the fact is, we don't know each other all that well. I know that we both like shirtwaist dresses and penny loafers. She can't drink rum - I can. But I don't think that it's this familiarity and affection that makes me appreciate this book so strongly. I don't even think it's because I was a teenager in Baltimore too. (Although I will hand this book especially to any girl who is or has ever been a teenager here - the landmarks do make us smile.)
Mary told Roger Sutton of the Horn Book that writing Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls "made me like my teenage self more. It made Nora seem very dear to me, like she was this little part of me that I remember so vividly." We should all have a chance to forgive our teenage selves like this. If I ever met her, I would give mine a hug. Failing that, I will unapologetically hug Mary.