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From Barnes & NobleThe Hissing of Summer Lawns
Who does not carry into adulthood the memory of some momentous adolescent epiphany, an incident some will recall as their first flash of insight into the indecipherable world of adults and others will mark with poignancy and regret?
For ten-year-old Marsha Eberhardt, that turning point is the summer of 1973, when a "kind of lawlessness infected everything" in the once peaceful Spring Hill suburb of Washington, D.C., turning safe, quiet streets of split-level houses, tidy lawns, and pruned dogwood trees into neighborhoods racked with uncertainty and fear. This is the year of the Watergate break-in, the year that her father ran off with another woman, the summer a boy from the neighborhood was murdered only blocks from her house. Years later, Marsha will come to connect all three events in her mind: "though I couldn't have explained it then, I believed that my father's departure had deeply jarred the domestic order not just in our house, but in the neighborhood, and by extension the country, since in those days my neighborhood was my country. My father left to find himself, and a child got lost. That's how it struck me."
Nosy, bespectacled Marsha -- contemptuously nicknamed Swamp by her older twin siblings Julie and Steven -- has a keen eye for detail and a knack for unearthing secrets. Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes adventures her fifth-grade teacher reads to the class, she keeps a notebook of "evidence," recording the twins' predilection for shoplifting and cigarettes, her father's strange behavior in the presence of her beautiful, bohemian Aunt Ada, and the suspicious comings and goings of the new neighbor, Mr. Green. "The trick, I realized, was to notice everything."
Eventually, like the Watergate burglars then in the news, her father and Ada make a "stupid mistake," and their affair is revealed. Humiliated and betrayed, Marsha's mother none-too-subtly encourages her husband to find other living arrangements. But if the adult Marsha, from the perspective of 20 years distance, eulogizes her father as an ordinary man "burdened with the heart of a Russian hero without any sort of balancing grand intellect or ironic world view," a man "lured by yearning itself" and "the desire to do something dramatic, large, doomed," as an adolescent she can only view his departure as a bewildering renunciation of her and the family.
After a chance tumble from a tree limb hobbles Marsha for the summer with a broken ankle, she finds that she has more time than ever for her solitary investigations. She cannot fail to notice as her mother strikes up a clumsy flirtation with the new bachelor on the block, and Mr. Green soon becomes the focus of Marsha's pent-up hurt and frustration. She scribbles a detailed mythology of her new neighbor's imaginary transgressions in her evidence notebook, and litters his yard at every turn with vaguely sinister trash, including one of her brother's condoms and a threatening note pasted together from newspaper clippings. Hoping to give her mother cause to doubt Mr. Green's intentions, she babbles exaggerated stories about Green's lecherous oglings -- how he has been seen staring at one child's underpants while she was doing handstands, how he spied on another from the bushes. "He's weird.... He looks at me," Marsha pleads, but her indictments are dismissed.
Then, in late July, 12-year-old Boyd Ellison is found brutally raped and murdered in the woods behind the local mall, and in the ensuing atmosphere of neighborhood hysteria, Marsha's childish prattling is remembered in a new light. Mr. Green, whose only crime was perhaps "a tragic lack of imagination, which kept him from perceiving how neatly he embodied everybody else's bad dreams," becomes the prime suspect. Worse, when a police detective questions the Eberhardts about the case, Marsha stands by her accusations:
I have never been one of those people who can retract a lie, who can explain that I spoke carelessly, that I hadn't meant what I said. Once I have lied, I've propelled myself into a story that has its own momentum. It's not that I convince myself that I'm telling the truth, it's that the truth becomes flexible. Or rather, the truth appears to me as utterly relative, which is a frightening thought but also inevitable if you examine any truth long enough, even reassuring in a cold way.
It would be easy to snicker that given this admission, it is little wonder that as an adult, Marsha has gone on to become a lawyer. But in keeping with the underlying morality of Berne's assured storytelling, Marsha's choice of professions reflects the essential nature of her childhood investigations -- the search for the truth. And ultimately, it is this seeking after the truth that drives her to reexamine the past, acknowledge her culpability, and find forgiveness.