Based on an actual crime in 1955, this YA novel is at once a mystery and a coming-of-age story. The brutal murder of two teenage girls on the last day of Nora Cunningham's junior year in high school throws Nora into turmoil. Her certainties, friendships, religion, her prudence, her resolve to find a boyfriend taller than she is - are shaken or cast off altogether.
Most people in Elmgrove, Maryland, share the comforting conviction that Buddy Novak, who had every reason to want his ex-girlfriend dead, is responsible for the killings. Nora agrees at first, then begins to doubt Buddy's guilt, and finally comes to believe him innocent - the lone dissenting voice in Elmgrove.
The title makes this story sound a bit like an adventure/mystery, but it’s on the quieter side. It’s a character-driven novel about a lost girl trying to find her way through life.
Nora is like most teens, not a leader and not a social pariah. In fact, everything about her is average, including her outlook on life. But then the deaths of two friends turn her world upside down, and she begins to doubt everything. All security she once had is stripped away: her faith in God, her unwavering friendships, any connection with her family, etc. Her views on Buddy Novak further separate her from the community and she feels lost, adrift, lonely.
These emotions are fantastically conveyed. Nora doesn’t know what to do, so she goes from one thing to another, one person to another, looking for something, anything, to anchor her down in the whirlwind of life. I think many teens will be able to relate to this. I remember feeling that lost during high school, and did exactly what Nora did in order to feel a part of something. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
The story has a few other narratives: Mister Death (the killer), Buddy, Charlie, Ellie, and diary entries from Cheryl and Bobby Jo. Some might find all these perspectives a bit chaotic, but I enjoyed them. I got enough insight into each so that I better understood them, but not so much as to consider them main characters. Mostly, each perspective illustrated how the murders affected them on a personal level: the image each person portrays, and then what they feel inside. I enjoyed getting to see this.
To some, the end might feel anti-climactic, but I enjoyed it. This isn’t a story about justice and seeing wrong-doers punished. It’s about getting on the path to discovering yourself. At the end, Ellie doesn’t have a sudden epiphany and then all is well. Instead, she takes one step onto that path. I think it’s a very realistic portrayal of life.
If you’re looking for a formulaic mystery novel where the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re interested in seeing how a horrific event affects a community, one girl in particular, you might like it. Actually, if you liked The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, you’ll probably like Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls.
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