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Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World


One of the top five adult buzz books at BookExpo this year was Sarah Weinman's The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World. I nabbed myself a copy and was hooked as soon as I started reading. Sally Horner was a young girl -- not even twelve years old, who was coerced into running away with a man four times her age. A simple act of youthful rebellion -- stealing something from the dime store -- set off a series of events that removed her from her family for two years and pushed her into a nightmare that would define her life.

It might seem odd to many of us that a young girl could be "kidnapped" but not picked up and hauled off. She went with Frank La Salle (a name among many he used) willingly because he told her that he was an FBI agent who required her to come with him on a road trip to avoid being arrested and telling her mother for the petty theft. We as a society underestimate the fear and the power that adults have over children, and how likely it is that children feel obligated to those in power will do what they say, even if they get a creepy gut feeling that they shouldn't. (I will put a plug in here to say that teaching children compliance as opposed to autonomy contributes greatly to being picked as a victim by predators -- they know to look out for this type of child who willingly goes along and fears getting in trouble for "telling.") Ten years ago I would have not believed that Sally went along so willingly with a convicted child molester; a decade, some degrees, and a lot of reading later I understand how easy it was for La Salle to take her and convince her poor mother that he was the father of a classmate.

Sally's time with Frank is only known somewhat, although there are details from witnesses who knew them in the neighborhoods in which they lived. The long-term effects of her ordeal, though, were not to be seen, as she died young in a tragic car accident. Her experience didn't just affect her, however. It affected her mother and sister, and her friends that she had both before the experience and after. However, the most wide-ranging impact Sally's kidnapping had was on the public at large, as she served as an inspiration for Vladmir Nabakov's Lolita. While he would deny it until the day he died, Weinman's detailed and painstaking research shows that he was quite familiar with the story, even weaving details too small for the public to recognize into his narratives.

This book was gripping and I couldn't put it down. Weinman is an outstanding narrative non-fiction writer and she tells a tale that is winding and confusing in as close to a linear manner as she can, while still keeping us totally involved in the story. It reads like a novel until  Weinman brings you back out of Sally's story and reminds you that Nabakov was living a parallel life at the time. It is the best way to tell Sally's story; otherwise, it's incredibly difficult. She was sexually assaulted the entire time she was gone, and she was captive to a man who worshiped her in the creepiest way you can imagine. Weinman has crafted a gorgeous retelling of a time in a young girl's life that was horrific, yet iconic. It's well worth sinking your teeth into and getting to know the other side of a book you may know, whether you like it or not.

I need to read Lolita now, as I have never read it. I never had a desire to, but reading Weinman's take on the book and her deep connections to Sally's story makes me intrigued as to what my take of the book would be. Will it be a sordid tale that makes me shiver, or will I despise Humbert Humbert in the way that Nabakov possibly intended his audience to feel toward a man who is clearly a sexual predator? I love a good unreliable narrator, so I will look out for it soon on my next few jaunts to the used bookstore.

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