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Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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A Memoir

A-GirlsOfTenderAge"Irene was killed twice," Smith writes, "murdered by a horrific man, and then erased by the era that was the fifties—all who needed to talk about her silenced." In 1953, a serial murderer killed an 11-year-old girl, Smith’s friend and neighbor. In recalling the social decorum that forbade discussion of this heinous crime and knifed a lasting scar through her adulthood, Smith delves deep inside her own childhood. She explores growing up among "working stiffs" in Hartford, Connecticut, her dysfunctional family ruled by her autistic older brother, her strict Catholic upbringing, the murder—and, most importantly, the creativity that ultimately flowered from this repression.
Free Press. 285 pages. $26. ISBN: 0743279778

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Smith does an admirable job of following the case through to its conclusion and showing how it affected her friend’s family, others in the neighborhood, and herself. It’s not surprising to learn that Smith repressed most of her memory of the incident, nor is it surprising to learn that the memory found its way into her fiction." Nancy Connors

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"There is much that is moving in the book, which is written in the voice of a wise child who was always full of questions and filtered through an even wiser adult who remembers it all with a mixture of tenderness and exasperation. … For Tirone Smith, the memoir is a means of recalling and finally laying to rest a difficult part of her past." Carole Goldberg

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Smith’s memoir is her attempt at catharsis, 50 years later. … Like the era the book recalls so vividly, it’s deceptively simple." Julia Scheeres

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Slowly and skillfully, as if crafting a handmade quilt, Smith takes the raw material of this all-American tale and weaves into the pattern a jagged thread. … [Smith] handles this mix of crime and memoir with the same smooth blend of journalistic precision and compelling storytelling that Joan Didion demonstrated recently in The Year of Magical Thinking." Stephen J. Lyons

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"With intelligence, disarming humor and deep affection for the families and the neighborhoods of the 1950s, Girls of Tender Age speaks eloquently on behalf of children and confronts the crippling silences that damage us in any era." Reeve Lindbergh

Critical Summary

After reading Girls, critics saw parallels between Smith’s life and fiction, in particular the second novel in the Poppy Rice mystery series, She’s Not There, which features a serial killer of teenage girls. Girls, at once a moving, frank, and often funny memoir, also painfully examines the evil that lurked beneath the surface of a quiet, all-American, working-class neighborhood. Smith alternates memories of her childhood with descriptions of Bob Malm’s sexual predation; as an adult, she tracked down the details surrounding her friend’s death, from the autopsy report to transcripts of Malm’s trial. While the former story is heartfelt, the latter is cold and impersonal, a style that jarred a few critics. Yet overall, Girls is an unforgettable memorial to Irene—and Smith’s own past.

Also by the Author

Love Her Madly (2002): This is the first entry in the Poppy Rice mystery series, mentioned above in the Critical Summary. Rice, director of the FBI’s crime lab, takes another look at the case of a young female death-row inmate (based on the real-life case of Karla Faye Tucker). Can the former Bronx DA get to the bottom of the first female execution in Texas since the Civil War?