Author: Jack Ketchum
Publisher: Dorchester Books, Leisure Books
Blurb (GR): A teenage girl is held captive and brutally tortured by neighborhood children. Based on a true story, this shocking novel reveals the depravity of which we are all capable.
This is a fictional story based on an actual 1965 killing of a teenage girl in Indiana. The girl, Sylvia Likens and her sister Jenny were put into the care of a single mother by her carnie parents. The woman, Gertrude Baniszewski, several of her children, and some neighborhood children tortured and eventually murdered Sylvia. She was forced to endure unbelievable atrocities like scalding baths, the carving of words into her body with needles, repeated beatings, eating feces, and worse. Ketchum describes, in graphic detail, what those events might’ve been like, from the point of view of the next door neighbor boy. Teenage Davy lives on a dead-end street and has been hanging out with the same neighborhood kids for his entire childhood. One day, while catching crayfish, he meets Meg, who has just moved with her sister into Davy’s next door neighbor’s home. Meg and Susan’s parents were killed in an auto accident and the only relative to take them in is Ruth, a single mother of three boys. There’s not too much need to go into the plot from here because you all know where it is going. I knew where it was going as well, but that didn’t make it any easier to read.
A few weeks ago, I saw a story on the news about two 48-year old twins in Houston who lived with their mother’s decomposing body after she passed away. I watched in horror as the newscasters described how the grown men frankly told police officers that she had tripped and fell while they were watching the BCS championship and then they just left her there, conscious and able to speak, until she passed a few days later. And the reason that they gave for not calling anyone after her death? Inability to pay for burial expenses. (a judge has not ruled on their mental ability to stand trial as of 5/5/11) What made me think of this story in relation to the book was my wondering about how the hell anyone could ever passively watch someone tortured or slowly dying. Davy knows that Meg is being tortured and I was fascinated with his reasoning about why everything was happening and whether he should do anything about it. Ruth and other perpetrators of such atrocities just be mentally unstable...at least I hope that is the case. But there were/are just so many other people involved in crimes like this--are they all mentally unwell? I’d love to be able to say that a crime as atrocious as this could never happen nowadays but it just did. Angela McAnulty starved, abused, tortured, and eventually killed her own daughter in Eugene, Oregon just last year. There were other people living in the house at the time. HOW? How can these people not report what is going on?
In terms of the book, loosely basing a story on real life events really gives an author an out. I want to say that x,y, and z didn’t seem realistic or probably didn’t/couldn’t happen but I haven’t gone through the notes on the trials so maybe they actually did. I always get a horrible feeling in my stomach when characters tell the police about something and then the police either (1)don’t take them seriously; (2) brush it off; or (3) don’t trust a child and then turn them back over to their abuser. I can’t pretend to know how much work police men and women have but it is horrible to hear of events like this happening and to know that they were absolutely preventable if someone had intervened.
This is a hard book to stomach. I recommend it to no one and everyone at the same time. No one will “enjoy” reading it. A lot of people probably won’t make it through the whole book. It is filled with sick, sick things. But sick things that happened and are still happening, which makes it all the more painful to read. There is a special place in hell for people that torture children.