Fear Grips a Small Town

Imagining the consequences of surrendering to prejudice.

Akashic Books, $15.95.

In today’s polarized society, says author Patricia A. Smith, facts are routinely twisted to fit preconceived notions and TV stations deliver their slant through screaming rants. Bad situations can easily be made worse by irrational fear pushing communities toward mob mentality. 

This is the premise Smith’s debut novel, The Year of Needy Girls. Set in the fictional town of Bradley, Massachusetts, the story begins with a heinous crime—the abduction of a little boy. As days slip by and the search intensifies without results, the town’s residents view each other with suspicion, wondering if anyone is harboring knowledge of the boy’s whereabouts or if the culprit is one of their own. 

Once the body is found and the town’s worst fears are confirmed, those fears are amplified and channeled into bigotry, grief devolving into hysteria. The local newspaper runs combative letters to the editor about “the hidden threat to all our children,” associating the pedophilia of the murderer with sexual orientation and seeking to isolate and ostracize gay people living in their community. 

The novel’s two protagonists, Deirdre and her partner Sara Jane (SJ), are in the crosshairs of the swelling anti-gay sentiment because both have jobs that regularly put them in contact with children. Deirdre is a teacher at an all girls high school called Brandywine Academy, and SJ works as a librarian not far from where the boy was abducted. In the days before the abduction, both women felt at ease in their community. But in the aftermath, they sense a rising mistrust among those they once called friends.

While bigotry serves as the fracturing force in the story, it is not the only thing pulling characters apart. The disparate concerns of rich versus poor weigh heavy in this small town that is divided by a river, where the affluent live on one side and the poor on the other. SJ grew up the only child of wealthy parents and now works in a poor section of town; Deirdre’s mother eked out an existence after her fisherman husband was lost at sea, and now Deirdre works at a school that caters to well-to-do families. 

Each woman has hard-earned wisdom that can benefit the other, but when they offer each other warnings—Deirdre that an illiterate man SJ began tutoring weeks ago (and secretly continued tutoring) seems like trouble, and SJ that Deirdre is getting too close to her students—both stubbornly refuse to heed their partner’s advice and plunge into compromising situations at work.

The results are calamitous. A student lies about her relationship with Deirdre, putting her job at risk. And the police’s prime suspect in the little boy’s murder is the man SJ was tutoring, raising questions of her culpability. 

Throughout The Year of Needy Girls, all of the details ring true. This veracity is due to Smith having experienced so much of it herself. In the 1980s, Smith was teaching fifth and sixth grade at a private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a local boy named Jeffrey Curley was abducted, raped and murdered. Now a teacher at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, she reflects on that harrowing incident. “A lot of my students knew him,” she says. “They had played Little League with him. They were terrified because the man who did this to him was Jeffrey Curley’s next-door neighbor. The kids had always been told, ‘Never get in the car with strangers.’ But he wasn’t a stranger, and that really threw their world upside down.”

Smith, a lesbian, says, “For those of us in the LGBTQ community, there was a lot of fear because Jeffrey Curley had been raped and he had been sexually molested. But his parents spoke out and said it had nothing to do with being gay.”

Although the inciting incident in this book is a murder, The Year of Needy Girls is no murder mystery. The town remains ignorant and suspicious for a long while, but we readers know from the opening chapter who abducts the boy. 

What is not certain, however, is whether the two protagonists will weather the storm around them.  “As I was writing those two characters,” says Smith, “I kept thinking about the fact that they weren’t going to make it as a couple because they just didn’t have that ability to be honest with each other.”

Throughout the novel, Smith peels back layers from relationships. Weaving throughout the story like twin strands of a braid are secrets and the eventual harm brought about by their revelation—prejudices exposed and lies told by loved ones uncovered. From a landscape peopled with supportive neighbors, coworkers and lovers of all kinds, Smith erases the certainty underlying characters’ beliefs and sets them tumbling into chaos. The Year of Needy Girls is an intelligent and captivating read that will spur readers to question their own truths. 

This article originally appeared in our August 2018 issue. 

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