Brian Jacobson

Hot summer in the city

By - Jun 1st, 2007 02:52 pm

Lesley Kagen is looking out the front window of Restaurant Hama, the fine Japanese establishment her and husband Peter Knapp have operated out of the Audubon Court in Bayside for almost 10 years. But this is not a feature about the fine tempura and fried calamari we will feast on in a few minutes.

“Piaskowski,” Kagen interjects with another local family name.

Her voice is comforting and level as she continues to identify familiar Brew City names and places. It’s a voice perfect for radio commercials – which Kagen did on the west coast for over a decade. But this is not a feature about past successes in television and voiceover work.

“I mean, this is definitely a Milwaukee book,” Kagen continues, and then wrinkles her brow within the context.

The Vliet Street characters in her debut novel Whistling in the Dark, published by North American Library (Penguin Books), have remarkable depth. The languid summer of 1959 passes by typically with Popsicles, movies and neighborhood games. But this is not a book about how whimsical, simple and tranquil those times were.

“A lot of people like to remember the ‘50s, and say ‘oh wow the ‘50s, it was so innocent.’ But in some ways it wasn’t, especially for girls,” Kagen says. “Girls were treated very differently back then. You were a 2nd-class citizen. Boys were important and girls weren’t. And that led to some situations that were not nice and not healthy.”

The main heroine of Whistling is 10-year-old Sally O’Malley, a fiercely loyal and smart girl who becomes an unwilling shamus during one summer dotted with personal tragedy and frustration. After promising her dad before he died to always look after her younger sister, Troo, Sally’s world is thrown asunder when her mother is hospitalized, her stepfather turns to the bottle and a murderer/molester appears on the scene.

Highly imaginative, Sally is pretty sure of two things: who the killer is and that she’s next on his list. Now she has no choice but to protect herself and Troo as best she can, relying on her own courage and the kindness of her neighbors.

For all the dark corners and mysteries in Kagen’s seeming thriller, however, she was stunned during the many accolades the novel received when the Mystery Guild named it an alternate for book-of-the-month.

“I thought why? I would say that it’s a literary novel with an element of mystery as opposed to a true genre mystery. I don’t think it has that feel to it at all,” says Kagen. “I don’t think that Sally is thinking about solving the crime. She’s more concerned with getting the information for keeping her and her sister safe. That’s a real different goal.”

Another neat trick that binds the book is the committed narrative voice, which is written in the first person from Sally’s perspective and vernacular ability.

“I wanted people to remember that children are different than adults,” she says. “They see things differently. The strange ways that words are put together. To create something believable across the board. They have to be thinking, puzzling things out. Sometimes things that don’t make sense as an adult makes perfect sense to a child. You have to work really hard to keep that consistent.”

Kagen says she cried when she first found out Whistling would be published. After a lifetime of writing, and two previous efforts that didn’t find a home, she equates the process being second only to parenting in difficulty.

As her own kids began to leave home, she found time to sit down every morning and finally reach back into her own memories of her childhood growing up near the historic Hi-Mount Boulevard District west of Washington Park. A compendium of remembered friends and family made up the fictional characters, and even Samson the Gorilla makes a pivotal appearance in the pages.

Kagen found fortune among her editors, with whom she worked to keep the tone and heart of the novel true.

“It’s something that means a lot to me, something I was really careful about – who would publish it and who would potentially mess with it – because once you sell it you have no control over what’s to happen to it,” she says.

Kagen also feels very lucky with the attention paid toward a book published as a trade paperback, contending that it makes the novel reasonably priced and transportable for a general audience – especially as a summer read.

“I’m excited about all the signings,” Kagen blushes. “Writing is such an insular thing to do. There’s a lot of dark in your head: Am I an idiot? This is never going to work. So after some time period when you see that people are really going to read this – that could be cool, right?” VS

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