There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson, a crime that occurred directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before, as residents of the first street in the Woodland Hills subdivision to have houses on each lot. It was a crime impossible during the daylight, when we neighborhood kids would have been tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on our driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters. But, at night, the streets of Woodland Hills sat empty and quiet, except for the pleasure of frogs greeting the mosquitoes that rose in squadrons from the swamps behind our properties. –My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh
Imagine The Wonder Years, if you are old enough. All that innocent nostalgia for adolescence, ice cream dripping curbside and first loves blushing as they slam lockers in school corridors. Now imagine The Wonder Years merged with a Law and Order: SVU episode, and all its treachery lurking around each corner. Finally, plop this summer break-turned-nightmare down in a muggy Louisiana neighborhood, a place strangely unique in the United States, with its lush greenery and delicious food, and you’ll get an idea of M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away.
The story focuses on the rape of Lindy Simpson, as it affected the town of Woodland Hills, Louisiana. We are told of Lindy’s rise amidst schoolyard friends and fall after the assault through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, looking back at his adolescence in Woodland Hills. Just one of a handful of Lindy’s followers, he worships her, lusts after her, and tries to track down her rapist. The narrator at times tested my tolerance–how much adolescent misunderstanding of love could I handle? Would I put the book down? Couldn’t this kid see how wounded Lindy was? But he couldn’t, and I didn’t. This is a story of growing up, with all the awkward moments, all the aches and pains, that entails.
As a debut novel, this one was highly praised, and M.O. Walsh’s prose is smart and striking. Each meditation on Louisiana, its people, its weather, and its food is clear and crisp, set with a voice so memorable it makes up for what were, for me, the book’s more icky moments. And the payoff is there, as we get to see this young, hungry, desperate boy grow up into something better. Despite its premise, this isn’t one to end on a bad note–I promise.