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April Book Club Choice

Girls of Tender Age by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith

Cover of Girls of Tender Age

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A moving memoir, set in the 1950s, combining a family portrait and true-crime story. Seen from the eyes of the little girl she was back then, Mary-Ann Tiron Smith offers a tender family picture of life in a rather unconventional family. Her mother, far from being the typical 1950s wife is “always on the verge of a nervous breakdown”; her brother is severely autistic, at a time no one knew what “autism” was, and her father, does his best to care for them all. Alternating with these chapters is the story of a killer, Bob Malm – a man who became the second to last person to be executed in Connecticut. Soon, these two stories collide one fateful day, striking a blow on a community in an era where no one locked their doors or acknowledged horrible things.

Both heart-warming and heart-wrenching, this book acts as a cathartic tribute, allowing the author to rehash a repressed memory and poignantly capture the essence of that time.

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Suggested Discussion Points:

Author Q&A

Q. Was writing this book a very emotional experience for you?
Kristin Bates, London

A. I compartmentalized as best I could, but went through a box of Kleenex for every ream of printer paper.

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Q. How hard was it to remember past events? Were you able to distinguish between your perspective as a child and your perspective now, as an adult looking back at these events?
Melissa Barnes, York

A. Since I'm, first and foremost, a fiction writer, I am made of blotter paper. I wrote of the events as I remembered them. Putting one fleeting memory down on paper led to an expansion of that memory to the point where I could see the entire scene as it took place.

Q. What do you think the reaction to your book would have been if it had been published in the 1950s?
Jennifer Clayton, Manchester

A. I don't think it would have been published. Back then famous people wrote their autobiographies. I would have had to fictionalize my life's events.

Q. I found the portrayal of your relationship with your brother particularly poignant. Has you found that this aspect of your story resonated with many other readers (perhaps from readers with an autistic sibling or child?)
Alexandra Hemming, London

A. I have heard from many parents of autistic offspring. The most heartbreaking are those who had to institutionalize their children many, many years ago. I heard from a retired psychiatrist who told me he served a residency at a famous clinic. There was one wing of people who no one could reach (or touch, literally). He realizes now that they were autististic, and agonizes that no one had any idea how to treat them. He said they were drugged into oblivion.

Q. If you could pick the era in which to grow up in, would you still choose the 50s or today’s world?
Jennifer Golden, Staffordshire

A. The 50s to me meant children in iron lungs. It meant controlling emotions to the point where a little girl dies and no one speaks about it, and works to keep from thinking about it. And god forbid you should comfort or cradle a crying infant. I'll take today in a New York minute.

Q. I’ve found out you also write fiction – was the process, writing this memoir, very different to your fiction writing?
Karen Davies, Essex

A. There is no comparison. With the memoir, I wrote what happened. With fiction, attempting to make up people, places and events out of thin air caused beads of blood to ooze out the pores of my forehead. The mental equivalent of digging ditches. The upside: there is an exhilaration, too, in the resulting creation.


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