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Girls of Tender Age

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir came out early last year, but I didn't hear about it until the middle of December, when a publicist at the Free Press contacted me with the suggestion that the forthcoming paperback edition "would be of interest to you and to the readers of Daily Blague." It was certainly of interest to me. Although there's an awful crime at the center of the book, and a lot of other stuff that it would be difficult to be thankful for, Girls of Tender Age is very funny. The humor is rueful, often pointing up the sheer backwardness of daily life in the lower reaches of the socioeconomic ladder during the Forties and Fifties.

The author is the scion of a Franco-Italian family, once removed. Her mother's French family comes to Hartford from Quebec. Her father's Italian family comes not from the South but from the Piedmont, and they refer to Sicilians as "Africans." Nobody thinks twice about expressions of overt ethnic racism. The Catholic population of Hartford is divided into Polacks, Guineas, Harps and Frogs - and everybody dances the polka.

There is also a Polish reference in Hartford connected with Saturday night card playing, a diversion enthusiastically enjoyed across ethnic lines. Whether poker or pinochle, gin rummy, or canasta, none of the games hold a candle to the popularity of that native Connecticut game, setback, which is unique in that making points of your own is secondary to forcing your opponent to lose points. In setting your opponent back, the game offers a socially acceptable way to humiliate and denigrate friends. Also, when you play setback, and an opponent makes a careless move, you hiss "New Britsky." In other words you're announcing the fact that the player is such an asshole he might as well be a dumb Polack from New Britain.

Ms Smith is electrically aware of differences between Now and Then, and adept at squeezing fun out of them - a small consolation for having lived through a time when, among other things, alleged rapists were routinely not arrested because felony convictions required witnesses. Consider, for instance, the incidental details of this chain of tales about the author's Aunt Margaret, her mother's youngest sister (NB: Like a European, Ms Smith tells her story in the present tense):

I love Auntie Margaret, particularly because she introduces me to politics. She is chairman of the Democratic Ward in the south end of Hartford. When I am seven she brings me to a meeting. Instead of going into the building where the meeting is taking place, she parks under a tree away from the streetlights. She is wearing a babushka pulled low over her forehead. I want to wear a babushka too. She figures no one will know who I am but she lets me wear one of her ratty old babushkas, which she comes up with after rummaging around on the car floor. Auntie Margaret gives me a notebook and pencil and whispers names to me as people file into the building for the meeting. I write down the names. I ask her who the people are.

She says, Traitors.

The traitors' choice loses and Ella Grasso is elected to the Connecticut state legislature. Twenty years later, Auntie Margaret gets to go to the governor's ball. The governor is Ella Grasso, the first woman in the country ever to be elected governor.

My mother buys Auntie Margaret her ball gown; she has the money to buy the gown because she starts working again as soon as possible after the rule is changed that didn't allow married women to have a job.

The day of the ball, my mother wants to pay for Auntie Margaret's hair appointment but Auntie Margaret insists she will go to the Charter Oak School of Hairdressing, where she will only have to fork over fifty cents to get her hair set. When the director of the school hears where my aunt is going that night, she does Auntie Margaret's hair herself, giving her a cute poodle cut, a twenty-year-old style that looks really nice. Auntie Margaret is too proud to ask my mother for anything else beyond the gown so instead of a purse she carries a plastic bobby pin case to the ball. No one notices because Governor Ella Grasso, who is built like a linebacker, is wearing an inaugural gown described by the society editor of the Hartford Courant as a floor-length Princeton sweatshirt - it's orange and black. After Governor Grasso's reelection, she wears a cotton shirtwaist from the Sears catalog to her second inaugural ball, purportedly saying, If anyone doesn't like it, they can go fuck themselves.

My mother, who learns of the plastic bobby pin case, sees to it that Auntie Margaret carries a gold mesh purse on a chain to ball number two.

This is compulsively readable prose, never ungrammatical but always absolutely vernacular. The earlier part of the book in particular is liberally seasoned by the smart defiance of working-class women, difficult to impress. The Tirones' comforts oughtn't to be underestimated, as long as one bears in mind that modern plushness had not yet come to people in their bracket. The mother had plenty of time, it seems, to play golf (she'd go on to win tournaments) as well as to hold a demanding job in Hartford's insurance industry. The father's career at a ball-bearing plant advanced steadily over the years. The parents appear to have gotten along well enough - and with each other's families, too. Life would have been positively idyllic if the author's older brother (and only sibling) hadn't been autistic.

There is no one in the United States with the name Tyler except my brother. His name, like his autism, is also rampant today.

Tyler's family knows that the boy is not retarded. He reads military histories and addresses everyone as if he were General Patton's adjutant. His sister comes to understand that, while Tyler understands the difference between right and wrong, he doesn't give a damn about it, and so he does as he pleases. This means throwing fits if anybody cries or plays music - other than his music. This means filling the house with sound of his favorite polka records for two hours every day. This means not going to school. If his parents are unwilling to put him away - and his father is determined not - then they will have to care for him themselves. They will have to keep him from gnawing his wrist so obsessively that it develops an infected wound. Tyler is a boy - and then a man - for whom there is no place in society.

Parallel to Tyler's story - to the chapters in which the author writes about her family - runs the story of Robert Nelson Malm, a normal and even brave man in every way except for his compulsion to touch little girls very inappropriately. His first run-in with the law occurs when he is twelve, and whenever he is not at sea during World War II or in prison afterward, he is on the prowl for a girl to molest. He does not - cannot - rape them, but he does touch their genitals before "prematurely" ejaculating. Then he tells them never to tell anyone about what he has done to them. He gets away with this, it appears, fairly regularly in the postwar years. His brief prison term stems from a trumped up robbery charge that takes the place of the complaint that a victim won't bring. Then, in 1953, he runs into a girl who stands up to him.

That girl is not the author. She is the author's classmate, a sweet Polish girl who attends Mass at another parish on the other side of Hartford. By the time the crime takes place, any half-attentive reader will know what to expect. But nothing in the world will induce me to puncture Ms Smith's very carefully inflated balloon, which, at just the right moment, lifts her book into transcendence, and, for a spell, Girls of Tender Age is a glorious memorial, loving but unsentimental, to little Irene Fiederowicz.

Later in life, the author feels compelled to find out for herself the particulars of the crime that took place, just a few backyards away, when she was in the fifth grade. This is how she learns the material that fills her brief, alternate chapters about Robert Malm. She keeps a gimlet eye on the legal climate that does little to impede men like Malm, at least so long as their infractions remain "merely" sexual. She finds it much easier to absolve the molester himself. She goes so far as to suggest that, someday, her parallel stories might intersect.  

So in his own way, Bob Malm finally, at the last hour, sort of takes responsibility...; he blames a monster that resides in his body. He doesn't apologize for the monster's actions, doesn't say the monster is sorry. When asked by a reporter what other [crimes the monster committed]... he declines to say.

Bob is fully integrated with the monster.

Neither Bob nor the monster has any idea what remorse is. Neither did my brother, Tyler. When Tyler pushed the kid off the stool at the Lincoln Dairy, my father made him apologize and he did, but he wasn't sorry, he was annoyed. Tyler did, in fact, have a monster that lived inside him. The monster's name was autism. So maybe sociopathic behavior is within the ever-widening spectrum of autism. Maybe a sociopathy that requires murder to assuage the internal demon-monster is a developmental anomaly that someday will be diagnosed and treated. Who Knows? Therefore, a theory - now defunct - that killers should be studied, not executed, in order to predict such sociopathy in others so they can be treated before they kill, makes sense to me.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has great gift of being able to share with nonjudgmental candor the look and feel of working-class life, while refracting it through the critical but forgiving wisdom of a novelist. She is able to reach across immense disconnects in American history - back to a land without television, for example - and bring back the lost past as if it were yesterday. Her portrait of an America that was until very recently overlooked by everyone, including those who escaped it, makes essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this country's paradoxes. Most astonishing - and satisfying - is the book's unflagging tact. Ms Smith can be very frank at times, but she never abuses someone else's story. I'm shelving my copy of Girls of Tender Age where I can get to it easily, knowing that I can open it anywhere for a meaningful read and some dark laughter. (January 2007)

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