Girl AloneNovember 14, 2011
I started by really liking Anne Austin’s Girl Alone, but as it went on, I found myself getting more and more creeped out, and I didn’t really realize why until I got to the ads at the back of the book. The storyline is a straightforward, predictable one, mostly. It goes like this: Orphan (Sally Ford) is sent to work as a hired girl on a farm for the summer. There she meets a cute boy (David Nash). They end up running away and joining up with a circus for a while. Then the mother Sally’s never known shows up and adopts her. This would be an extremely unsurprising children’s book, right? Only it’s not.
Sally is 16 and very sheltered, and even before she leaves the orphanage the outside world and the farmer bringing her home with him are treated as a sexual threats. David is 20, and he’s a nice guy, but his attraction for Sally and hers for him is primarily physical. He understands that his desire for her is inappropriate, and the fact that she doesn’t kind of underlines why. The circus stuff is pretty cool, and Sally becomes a fairly successful fortune-teller, but she and David are mostly separated, and their few meetings leave me increasing unconvinced/creeped out by their relationship.
Then Sally’s mother, Enid Barr, shows up and stops Sally and David from getting married, which is nice, and drags Sally off to boarding school, which I think is probably a really healthy decision. But there’s an extra layer of complication. Sally was the result of an affair that Enid had as a teenager, and now Enid is married to a man who has forgiven her for her youthful indiscretion but is pretty uncomfortable about being faced with it’s product. They adopt her and make her a debutante, and because she’s pretty and rich a few men show interest in her, but she doesn’t feel she can accept a proposal unless she tells the truth about her birth, and Enid won’t let her do that. And anyway, she still wants to marry David. Finally, after being rejected by this guy Mr. Van Horne who’s been following her around and sexually harassing her since she was in the circus, her mother admits defeat and lets her do that, much to everyone’s relief.
At first I couldn’t put my finger on why all of this made me so uncomfortable. All of the elements of this story are ones I’ve had no trouble with elsewhere. But then I saw the ads at the end, which were all for scandalous stories of divorce and betrayal and things, the kind of books that say “how racy can we be and get away with it?” They looked like fun, in a pre-code Hollywood film kind of way. And then I sort of understood. Girl Alone isn’t just a more grown-up version of a typical children’s story; it was purposely created to be as adult as reasonably possible. It just doesn’t work, because there’s a dissonance between “orphan girl runs away and joins the circus” and “16 year old girl makes out with her 20 year old boyfriend.” Both of those are things I’m open to, and I believe that the first can be done well in a way more suitable for adults than for children, and that the second can happen without setting off statutory rape alarms in my head, but Anne Austin manages neither of those things.
It might work is Sally was different. The Sally we see is sweet and timid and worryingly innocent. The Sally we’re told about is a sparkling, clever, talented actress. Neither rings true. The outgoing Sally, made just a bit more convincing, might have made the book work. The shy, innocent Sally always seemed too clueless to understand what was happening around her, which made a really poor argument for her ability to consent. In the end, Girl Alone made me feel kind of dirty. I don’t know that this would be the case for everyone, and I’ll freely admit that I enjoyed many of the parts that didn’t include David or Mr. sexual predator Van Horne, but on the whole? No. Just, no.