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The Dust on a Butterfly’s Wing: On Sarah Weinman’s Investigation of “The Real Lolita”

IN HER UTTERLY ENGROSSING book The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, Sarah Weinman explores two major thrusts: revealing the impact of Sally Horner’s life on the fictional world of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and portraying that tragically short life of unsung influence as vividly and as fully as possible.

Some of us recall her blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, tracing true crime and crime fiction news; Brooklyn-based Canadian Sarah Weinman has fed her own obsessions by editing both Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, an anthology of domestic darkness by women suspense writers, and Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. Crime is her business, and along with her multiple bylines from The New York Times to the Guardian and reporting on the publishing business for Publishers Marketplace, she continues her fascination with criminality in her newsletter, The Crime Lady.

In the riveting introduction, Weinman explains that after discovering Sally Horner, and writing up the connections to Nabokov for Hazlitt, a Canadian online publication, she realized Sally Horner “was not finished with me.” The young woman’s short life with her unrealized dreams continued to haunt her. She writes: “What drove me then and galls me now is that Sally’s abduction defined her entire short life. She never had a chance to grow up, pursue a career, marry, have children, grow old, be happy,” and, “After Sally died, her family rarely mentioned her or what had happened. They didn’t speak of her with awe, or pity, or scorn. She was only an absence.”

This immediately draws us in to Sally’s story, and we want to know everything the author has uncovered or inferred about her life.

Who was Sally Horner? A bright young girl who lived with her working, single mom, Ella Horner. She grew up in what was then idyllic, community-oriented Camden, New Jersey. Lonely, she confided in her teacher, who occasionally walked her home from school. Sally volunteered at the local hospital. In early 1948 she was a fifth grader, and, on a dare from the clique of girls she aspired to join, she stole a nickel notebook from her local Woolworth’s. As she reached the exit, Frank La Salle grabbed her arm, told her he was an FBI agent, and that she was under arrest.

Frank La Salle’s 1943 mug shot reveals him as a craggy-faced, smirking criminal, sentenced for the statutory rape of five girls. That day in Woolworth’s he let Sally go, on the condition that she report in to him from time to time. Months later, in mid-June, he approached her on her way home from school, and told her that the government insisted that she accompany him to Atlantic City, or face reform school. He gave her a barely plausible script that she then told her mother. He later called her home and repeated the story to Ella Horner, that he was the father of two of Sally’s friends and he wanted to take them all on a beach-side vacation. Ella, who hoped for her daughter to have a vacation, agreed. After a few weeks of postcards and calls from pay phones, Sally stopped communicating, and no longer knowing where her daughter was, Ella at last realized that something truly horrible had begun.

Sally Horner was 11 years old, and would remain La Salle’s victim for the next 21 months.

Why did Sally go? Why did Ella comply?

Weinman does a tremendous job in recreating the past, understanding the culture of the time, entering the minds of her cast. She explains Ella’s perspective, Sally’s narrow and innocent life experience, as well as the omnipresent threat of reform school being told by a forceful adult male presence. As time passed in Sally’s abduction, and Ella didn’t know whether she was even alive, she said, “Whatever she’s done, I can forgive her,” a telling statement of how victims were, not so very long ago, perceived.

We meet the Vladimir Nabokov of 1948, the same year as Sally’s abduction. He was a financially struggling academic, an author so weary and ill that he took a semester off while his wife, Véra, taught his classes at Wellesley.

As Weinman switches between the two story lines, we see the cross-country trips Nabokov takes with his wife and others, in search of verisimilitude for his novel and the Lycaeides argyrognomon longinus butterfly. We see his literary friendships and his literary compulsions. Weinman traces his own penned precursors to Lolita, unpeeling the layers to reveal the depths of his fixation, examining his stylistic growth and his artistry. She reveals literary influences, from Edgar Allan Poe to Lewis Carroll, as well as a contemporary and friend of his, Henry Lanz, a Stanford professor who, at 30, married a 14-year-old. But I’m not sure we do learn why Nabokov had, as she puts it, “this involuntary, unconscious need to unspool this particular, horrible narrative.” As she says, as she looked for clues in his publications: “Nabokov grew less knowable.”

What we do learn is that he was an intense hoarder of secrets and that his wife provided a wall of insulation from the outside world, from prying reporters, from fact checkers.

Love Lolita or loathe it, Weinman reminds us that its legacy is so deeply embedded in the culture that no one is neutral about this novel. Weinman shares her own shivering response as an adolescent to the opening lines. Later, in one of the startling, best responses to this Great American Novel, she recounts the experience of the enthralled, well-intentioned writer Mikita Brottman leading a book club at a maximum-security prison:

The prisoners in her book club were nowhere near so enchanted. An hour into the discussion, one of them looked up at Brottman and cried, “he’s just an old pedo!’ A second prisoner added: “It’s all bullshit, all his long, fancy words, I can see through it. It’s all a cover-up. I know what he wants to do with her.” A third prisoner drove home the point that Lolita “isn’t a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to the lower [sic] common denominator, and it’s a grown man molesting a little girl.

The incarcerated are the clear-sighted readers.

When it comes to the other people in this story, Weinman excels at dense and layered characterizations. She thoroughly captures the repugnant Frank La Salle, vividly recreates the loving details of Sally Horner’s family members, and gives us generous insight into Ruth Janisch, the one adult able to gain Sally’s confidence and help her find her way home. We also are introduced to the detective Marshall Thompson, and the prosecutor Mitchell Cohen, both nearly archetypal in their pursuit of Sally and justice.

While meticulously citing events, news articles, Nabokov’s note cards, connecting the dots and influence between Sally Horner’s well-publicized abduction, return home, and tragic ending to the bones of the novel and the structure of Dolores Haze’s life, Weinman dazzles the reader with the recreation of this time period, along with spectacular true crime asides contemporary to the events she’s recounting.

For example, there’s Dorothy Forstein’s disappearance, four years after her attempted murder. There’s the tale of the Polish Baptist preacher, who hires a hit out on his daughter — along with the tantalizing detail that lobar pneumonia, the stated cause of his wife’s death, was “the same cause of death listed for a number of victims of a murder-for-insurance scheme in Philadelphia whose culprits had some connections with the preacher.” Finally, there’s a chilling Targets-like take on an active shooter in Camden, in 1949.

The author details the dead ends and wrong turns, and the frustrating lack of evidence. Like the skilled crime writer she is, Weinman evokes the relentless detective in her investigative research: “Searching out these clues of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.”

As we read through this mesmerizing book, Weinman’s obsession becomes the reader’s obsession. We begin to notice speech patterns and prevarications and sins of omission and realize that that there are three unreliable narrators: Humbert Humbert, Frank La Salle, and Vladimir Nabokov. We are keen on the thoroughly researched connections, and filled with admiration when Weinman has noticed something that, until her sharp insight, has been as invisible to others as the dust on a butterfly’s wing.

The author ultimately argues that both La Salle and Nabokov denied Sally Horner her agency, her humanity. The most important achievement of this book is that we develop boundless compassion for this once little girl, along with a deep empathy and sorrow for the story of her life. As Weinman writes, “With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence. Like the butterflies the Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.”

¤

Désirée Zamorano is the author of The Amado Women.

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