Betty Ren Wright’s THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS is one of those books that I always assumed was never particularly famous, but that somehow got into my main shelf rotation and was read by me many times as a child.
That assumption has been called into question, though, since I randomly threw in a small reference to it in my first blog post and somehow it became one of our main sources of search engine traffic.
It seems people are searching for things like “the dollhouse murders summary chapter 12,” and I’m like, “…Really? 1) Are they assigning this in schools now? Why? (No offense to the book; like I said, I’m a fan. But really: why?) 2) You need a summary of one chapter of a book whose chapters are maybe six pages long?”*
But anyway. As with many books, I can’t sort out whether I love this book on its own merits, or merely because I did read it again and again and again in my youth.
As the blogger from whom I stole the image of my original ’80s cover notes, the resolution to the book’s central mystery is really anti-climactic and a bit lame. I also thought that it too neatly wrapped up one character’s personality flaws in a neat little deterministic package, like her whole life can now all be understood as a reaction to this one event a quarter century ago.
On the other hand, that same character’s flaws are one of the things I appreciated about the book, rereading it as an adult. The character is our protagonist Amy’s beloved Aunt Clare. She’s prickly and can be almost a bit mean, but you also see her real strengths and kindness. It’s relatively rare to have that nuanced a portrait of an adult even in a young adult novel, much more so in (publishing jargon alert!) a “middle-grade” book like this one.
The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, is Amy’s relationship with her retarded sister Louann.
This relationship is extremely well portrayed. Amy is frustrated by Louann, resentful of her, embarrassed by her… and will also rise to her defense against anyone outside the family, judging them by their acceptance of her. Isn’t that how most of us feel about our own families?
I particularly like that Wright shows us Louann’s needs for autonomy in spite of the disability that will inherently limit that freedom. I have developmentally disabled people in my extended family, and this very much rings true to my experiences.
It also raises my biggest question about the book. The conflict in this subplot is primarily with Amy and Louann’s mom, who needs to learn, despite her instincts, to let Louann go. Internally to the book I feel like this works.
But when I reread it within the last couple years, it was after having done a lot of reading about the long history of mother-blaming in this arena. Like, the prevailing “scientific” theory of autism, well into the 1960s until parents of autistic kids began successfully challenging it, was the “refrigerator mother” theory — the specter of mothers who were so cold and unloving that they made their kids autistic.
Wright’s book is totally on another plane from that, but somehow, after all the refrigerator mother reading, a book where the disabled child is being held back by her mother made me uncomfortable. I’m wondering if maybe the conventions of drama require a certain kind of conflict and resolution that, in books about developmental disability, actually do involve taking some sides on parents’ roles.
I haven’t read Ann M. Martin’s INSIDE OUT (a book I deeply respect) since I was very small, but there too, part of the development of the story is that the family has to learn to handle James’s autism. And, you know, I’m not very up on my autism research these days, but in a context where Jenny McCarthy is getting a $1 million advance for a book full of bullshit “remedies” and sadly false hope for desperate parents, I feel like you have to be careful with the stories about autistic kids improving because their parents figured out what to do. Can you write those stories without taking sides on controversies much larger than the individual characters you’re creating? Can you do it without implicitly blaming the parents who aren’t doing whatever your characters need to learn to do, when that learning is the emotional engine of your book?
So what do you guys think? This is (yet! another!) case of me overthinking things, isn’t it?
* Other troubling search term: “vampire academy theme.” …Seriously?