I read Lolita a few years ago and loved it, so I was intrigued when I heard about this book by Sarah Weinman covering the real-life kidnapping of a young girl a decade or so before Nabokov’s novel was published, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
Weinman starts by talking about how often Nabokov’s book is so often misunderstood – many people mistake it for a star-crossed romance instead of a predator’s account of how he captured and imprisoned his prey. Weinman credits Nabokov’s writing talent with this common misconception, but as impressive as his writing is, I think that explanation fails to address how poorly our society handles sexism pedophilia in real life, much less in fiction. The infantalization of grown women and general preference for women who seem childlike, both in physical appearance, and in behavior, is a huge problem in this country and I think it’s a major contributor when considering why so many readers don’t see a problem with anything Humbert Humbert does … or says he does.
That said, the kidnapping of Sally Horner is a nightmare. Frank LaSalle, a local mechanic, caught her stealing a notebook, told her he was from the FBI and that he would have her under surveillance. If she failed to report to him, he would have her locked up in a juvenile penitentiary – a hellish fate. So, of course she met with him regularly until he suggested they go out of town together for a weekend getaway. She told her mom (per LaSalle’s instructions) that it was a school field trip and she’d be back on Sunday. When Monday came around and she still hadn’t returned, her mom called the cops.
I appreciate that Weinman takes the time to talk about the cops who investigated the kidnapping and their careers both leading up to and after the events of the kidnapping itself. They’re lives are important, too and it helped ground the story in the larger history of the day.
We’ll never know exactly what happened after Frank whisked 11-year-old Sally away. They stayed in a hotel for at least a week, but by the time officers got there, they had fled, leaving only a photo and some old clothes. They drove around the east coast for a bit before heading south, where they stayed for a while before moving on. Like Humbert, Frank told everyone Sally was his daughter, but she finally made a friend and confided the sexual acts she had been committing with Frank. Her friend told her what she was doing was a sin and that it had to stop, and according to Sally, she did put a stop to it after that day.
Eventually they moved on to California in search of more work for Frank and that’s where Sally finally confided in a neighbor and asked for help in contacting the police. She managed to get a hold of the FBI who told her to stay right where she was and immediately came and whisked her away, then they waited for Frank outside his trailer, arrested him, and transported him back to the east coast for trial.
Frank spent the rest of his life in prison, but he seemed to have convinced himself of the fantasy he had been trying to sell everyone else – that he was Sally’s father and that he loved and cared for her like a father.
Weinman also covers the story of Nabokov trying to write this book and struggling to find the time to do it amid his day job, which was as a professor of literature. He also had a couple short stories he wrote about pedophiles prior to writing Lolita, suggesting it was a topic that had fascinated him for a long time and he had been working towards his masterpiece. As a writer, it’s good to know I have more than one shot to get a story right.
Nabokov vehemently denies that the Sally Horner case inspired his story, and while the original seed may have been planted long before Sally was ever kidnapped, that doesn’t mean Nabokov didn’t use pieces of the real-life case in his novel. He even references Frank and Sally by name at the beginning of the novel before he starts in on his version of events (which is as twisted as Frank’s version of his road trip with Sally). There were also notes about Sally’s case found among his belongings, suggesting her story inspired elements of the famous novel, if not the overarching plot.
Weinman made some really good points in this book, but like I said, I think she missed some things and she took a few leaps I found it hard to follow. She talks about the death of Humbert’s wife as an accident, even though I’ve never bought into that version (the timing was way too convenient, and he is, after all, an unreliable narrator). She even points to a passage in which Humbert gloats about getting away with what he did to Lolita’s mom, but Wienman apparently misses the point.
This book includes some photos of Frank, Sally, and her friends and family members, which is great because I did not agree with Weinman’s descriptions of them at all. She appears to read way too much into the photographs, relying on the information she already has about the situations instead of taking the photos at face value (no pun intended). The worst case of this was a description of a photo of the boy Sally was with on the night she died. Weinman says his hair is mussed, when the photo clearly shows it is perfectly coiffed, which made it pretty hard for me to take anything else she said seriously.
So, in a sense, I suppose you could say this book is the perfect follow-up to Lolita because Weinman is as unreliable as Humbert!
What did you read this week? Anything else you liked overall, but that you think missed the mark in some places?