What’s the story, morning glory?
The Girl is Murder* by Kathryn Miller Haines is set in New York City, autumn 1942. Following her adored mother’s suicide and the return of a veteran father she barely knows, Iris Anderson is in for some rough waters. There isn’t money anymore, and Iris and her father have to move to a poorer neighbourhood. It isn’t as if her father has a brilliant career as a private detective ahead of him, either, not since he lost his leg at Pearl Harbour. And it isn’t as if Iris has a lot to look forward to, either, attending public school for the first time in her life (there are boys at school! how strange) and trying (unsuccessfully) to make friends.
It doesn’t help when you have secrets to keep and nobody to talk to, except maybe Mrs. Mrozenski, the landlady. Iris’s parents weren’t – aren’t – observant, but being Jewish is definitely something she tries to keep on the down low. Her mother’s German-ness was bad enough, back when she was still alive; and a suicide in the family isn’t something you admit to.
But with the rent money dwindling to near non-existence and her father not able to do the legwork being a detective requires, fifteen-year-old Iris decides to solve a case for her pop.
He isn’t pleased.
Things I liked about this book: The tension. There is constant tension: between classes, between races, between generations. It isn’t glossed over, okay? There isn’t any of that 1950s make nice and pretend everything is fine, sunshine sort of thing. Iris is naive and has been sheltered – and she’s just lost that shelter. She’s just lost almost everything, actually, and the story is, in part, the story of her waking into awareness: awareness of the privilege she has lost, the privilege she retains, and the precarious position she is in as an ex-private school girl who has fallen into the public system. Over and over Iris runs into girls and women from her former life, and has to navigate their perception of her worth with her own, nascent beliefs about any individual’s worth despite (lack of) wealth. She is partly adopted by one of her new school’s gang girls, Suze, who expands Iris’s vocabulary immensely, and is confronted with casual violence and an entirely different culture than the one she had always assumed was normal. Iris meets, for the first time, boys with different coloured skin who aren’t servants. They’re her classmates and, briefly, her dance partners, when she and Suze dance all night in a Harlem club.
… it wasn’t just the dancing that grabbed my gut and held me solid. The music was different. This wasn’t Benny Goodman rocking the airwaves from the parlor radio. These musicians worked their instruments like they were part of themselves – trumpets grown in place of arms, pianos where there should’ve been legs. Instruments didn’t sound like instruments here: they were animals that growled, hooted, and barket in four beats to a measure. I don’t know how the musicians got them to sound that way, but it was more alive than any music I’d heard before. (p. 159)
Iris’s previous experience of racism had been muted – her father had changed their last name, after all, so they weren’t overtly identified as Jews; and it had only been the past few years when a German mother became a problem. Now she sees a nice boy get beaten up by men she had thought of as heroes, men sworn to protect the young men they target.
There is one (remarkably, only one) scene I want to flag. In this snippet of a scene, Iris is reflecting on being an ethnic outsider, albeit a tolerated one. She considers her Jewishness and her German-ness. At this point her description of her own increasingly “ethnic features” makes me deeply uncomfortable. (“Coarse” is used to contrast her more Jewish face with her mother’s “fine” German bones.) I read this as Iris’s internalized racism, and within the context of the story, it fits: Iris is aware that outing herself as Jewish would result in some degree of social ostracism, particularly as Italians are considered coloured, and Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are deemed barely better (!) than black Americans – who, implicitly, aren’t considered real Americans at all. Iris’s perspective of herself is harsher than her perspective of anyone else and it is also true that she loves her observant aunt and uncle, and that she isn’t ashamed of being Jewish, only deeply aware of its social consequences. But. The passage makes me flinch.
The racist language and expectations fit the era; readers are expected to know that taunting, say, Italians (who are not considered white in 1940s America) with a racial slur is wrong. There is no big didactic moment where all the discrimination Iris witnesses is called out. Instead, discrimination – whether based on race, sex, or class – is more quietly undermined, as filtered through Iris’s perspective. The most loathsome characters, for instance, are her former classmates, who care everything for social position (i.e. wealth and whiteness) and nothing for compassion. Iris herself has a lot of growing up to do; she, like her former friends, tends to use the girls around her rather than be the unalloyed friend she pretends to be. Secrets and lies are part of most of Iris’s relationships.
I stared at her – I couldn’t help it. Who was she? The [girl] I’d known had never been this self-absorbed. Or maybe she had been, but I’d been too self-absorbed myself to notice.
“Who are you?” I asked.
A smile bloomed across her face. “The same girl I’ve always been. You’re the one who’s changed.” (p. 330-331)
But this sounds all gloom and doom. It isn’t. Iris is a forthright character** and an engaging narrator. She and her friends have heart, no matter how much trouble they get into. I particularly liked Mrs. Mrozenski as an ally and semi-maternal figure, and the tentative dance of advance and retreat as Iris and her father begin to form a relationship (he’d been away for almost all of her life) was a treat.
If you like historical fiction, detective fiction, school stories, stories about friendship, stories about war from the home perspective, or any combination of the above, take a word from one hep cat and don’t be a square from Delaware but cut a rug to the library and bust loose reading this zazz book.
What’s tickin’, chicken?
*In 1942 slang, murder meant marvelous, according to the glossary. Isn’t that murder?
**Much like Ruby Redfort. Iris doesn’t play games with the reader. She says (or thinks) what is on her mind.