Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Year of Needy Girls

by Patricia A. Smith
Akashic Books     2017
333 pages     Literary Fiction

Two disasters happened in my small city of Kalamazoo in 2016 that upended the city—an Uber driver went on a rampage, shot and murdered several people, and a drunk and overdosed driver plowed into a group of bicyclists, killing several as well.  How a city responds to a major problem can determine the character of the city. In the case of Kalamazoo, both compassion and outrage led to policy and city ordinance changes that will make the city better. In Bradley, Massachusetts, on the other hand, outrage over homosexuality and murder threaten to destroy the fabric of the town. The town became divided between "us and them," leaving disaster in its wake. The Year of Needy Girls explores how a community responds to crisis.

Like many towns, Bradley has poor people, immigrants, and middle and elite classes. Deidre, a teacher, wants to live and work on the right side of town. Her partner SJ, a librarian, seeks to find meaningful work in the poorer section of the community. From the outside, their relationship is secure; their employers know that they are lesbians and are accepting of it. However, inside the house, the couple is drifting apart, keeping secrets from each other,  and feeling the stress of trying to maintain a normal life within the community.

There are several story lines at play in Patricia Smith's The Year of Needy Girls, which was published yesterday. Maybe too many. A young boy disappears and is discovered sexually assaulted and dead several days later. The town becomes very fearful for its children. Then Deidre, who works in a private girl's high school is accused of molesting one of her students, and the terror the community is feeling over the death of the young boy erupts into ugliness and homophobia. Everyone suffers from the fallout although the resulting witch hunt lacks tension and suspense, which leaves the reader feeling rather blah.

The tension in the plot is all internal, both for the characters and for the reader. We know from the outset what is going to happen, and in general, we know how the characters are going to respond.  Publisher's Weeklysays that Smith's "crisp prose and dedication to realistic moral ambiguity" makes for an interesting read. I understood and related to the moral ambiguity, but as a retired teacher, I knew that Deidre was too dedicated to her students and was constantly being too accommodating and affectionate with the "needy girls" at the school. Something was bound to happen, and her own ambiguity over her response to the girls was very disquieting. One of the first things a teacher learns is to not get emotionally attached to your students—and to NEVER hug a student. The tragedy of the book is that Deidre's brilliant and dedicated teaching gets lost in scandal.

The reviewer in Kirkus Reviews felt that the author was attempting to do too much and the plot was too easily resolved. A much better exploration of women teachers in private girls' schools is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Spark. Mystic River by Lehane explores with much more tension the abduction and sexual exploitation of a child. I am not sure that I can wholeheartedly recommend The Year of Needy Girls, but read the reviews, borrow the book from the library, and make your own appraisal. 

Just as I was posting this review, I opened today's Washington Post. The headline article was about an elementary teacher and his husband who were accused of abusing 8 boys. They killed themselves to avoid the investigation and prosecution. So, the topic of teachers and sexual exploitation is not going away, and teachers need to be extremely vigilant as they work with their students. On that topic, Patricia Smith's exploration is valuable and insightful.

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