Rust and Stardust by T Greenwood

‘I’m gonna need for you to come with me,’ he said, tugging at her arm to pull her along.’

Camden, NJ, 1948.  Sally Horner is just 11 years old when wanting to be part of girls’ club changes her life forever.  To join, Sally must steal something from the local Woolworth’s.  Sally knows that stealing is wrong, but she longs to belong.  Sally takes a notebook, but just as she gets to the front door she’s accosted by a man:  ’I’m sorry, miss, but you’re going to need to come with me.’.

The man tells her that he is an FBI agent, and because he likes her, he’s not going to hand her to the police.  The man is Frank LaSalle, a 52-year-old man, fresh from prison.  He convinces Sally do as he says.  This involves a complicated story, which has Sally’s mother initially believing that Frank LaSalle is the father of a friend of Sally’s and is taking her on a holiday.

So begins almost two years of physical and mental abuse as Frank LaSalle takes Sally westward from Camden.  Sworn to secrecy, fearing for her mother and her sister, Sally suffers in silence. Some of those she meets along the way are concerned for her, but they (and the police) seem to always be one step behind.

‘Don’t worry about your mama, Sally.  They’ll forget about you soon.  It’ll be like you never was.’

The real-life kidnapping of Sally Horner is one of the inspirations behind Vladimir Nabokov’s novel ‘Lolita’.  Near the end of ‘Lolita’, Nabokov writes: ‘Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?’  I’ve read ‘Lolita’ three times, but I never looked for any information behind this reference until after reading this novel.  Both ‘Lolita’ and this novel are fiction, but Sally Horner’s abduction is fact.  In this novel Ms Greenwood draws Sally from the shadows and gives her a voice.  Imagine being an eleven (and then twelve) year old girl in her situation.  Imagine feeling unable to tell anyone what was happening, for fear of what might happen to you or to those you love?

‘Please let them find me, she thought.  Before it’s too late.’

Ms Greenwood explores this period in Sally’s life from several different angles.  Her mother, her sister, her brother-in-law and a couple of the people she meets along the way are each part of the story.  Perhaps her mother was naïve and trusting, perhaps Sally should have tried harder to escape.  It’s always easy to wonder why other people act the way they do (or do not).  By presenting this story in the way she does, Ms Greenwood invites the reader to imagine being Sally, or one of the other people worried for her.  But for Sally there is little comfort, no escape.

‘Why didn’t anyone try to save her?’

Those who know the story of Sally Horner know how it will end.  Those who do not will, like me, be turning the pages hoping that Sally will be rescued.  Some, like me, finding the suspense unbearable will do some research before the end of the novel.  Whichever way you choose to approach Sally’s story, it’s uncomfortable.

I did not enjoy this novel in any conventional sense of the word.  I was profoundly moved by it, reduced to tears at times, occasionally taking heart from the small pieces of humanity Sally benefitted from on her journey.  How can it be that so many of us remember ‘Lolita’ but have never explored Sally Horner’s story?  Ms Greenwood has written a powerful and moving novel, imagining aspects of Sally Horner’s journey.  This is not an easy read, but I think it will prove unforgettable.

And the title ‘Rust and Stardust’?

‘My car is limping, Dolores Haze,

And the last long lap is the hardest,

And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,

And the rest is rust and stardust.’

― Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Lolita’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and St Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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