Rust & Stardust
by T. Greenwood
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 368 Pages
Release date: August 7, 2018
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Camden, NJ, 1948.
When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says.
This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.
Sally Horner’s tragic ordeal inspired Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, but the real story is even more heart-breaking. I must admit that I was hesitant to pick this book up for fear that it would feel exploitative of the young victim of such a heinous crime. However, after seeing one glowing review after another, I decided to give it a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised by this novel.
The subject matter obviously invites comparison with Lolita, and I think that draws attention to one of the novel’s greatest strengths: the focus is on the victim rather than the twisted mindset of the perpetrator. Nabokov’s work is an exploration of the depths of darkness; Greenwood’s book places the focus on the victim and feels more inherently respectful. Lolita is not so much about Lolita as it is about Humbert Humbert. Greenwood draws Sally Horner to the center of the narrative, giving her a voice and inviting us to empathize with her and her family.
The novel maintains what feels like an appropriate distance from the sexual assaults which Sally suffered, generally skipping straight from the instigation to the aftermath. Greenwood refrains from using these events for cheap shock value and instead focuses on Sally’s attempts to process what is happening to her and her longing for home.
Rust and Stardust is told primarily from Sally’s perspective, but has multiple POVs throughout, often capturing the near misses when Sally encounters people who could potentially help her. Over and over, we hear things like, “Someone should do something about that.” These are the most heartbreaking part of the novel, in a lot of ways. Neighbors and teachers get a vague feeling from Sally that something isn’t quite right with her home life, but in the absence of any solid evidence, they feel helpless. These moments are heartbreaking because they are painfully relatable; who among us hasn’t witnessed something that was just enough to give us pause, just enough to leave a niggling sense of uncertainty at the back of our minds? Maybe it’s nothing, but what if…? Sally’s story forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about what to do in these situations.
On top of Greenwood’s delicate handling of such an ugly subject, Rust and Stardust is simply artistically lovely, with lyrical prose that could have you turning the pages for the pure music of her words. This is emotional and not an easy read, by any means. It will reach into you and wrap cold, unforgiving fingers around your heart, but I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
How sad was it that grief had a shelf life, he thought. It’s only fresh and raw for so long before it begins to spoil. And soon enough, it would be replaced by a newer, brighter heartache – the old one discarded and eventually forgotten.
Have you read Rust and Stardust? What were your thoughts?
How do you feel about reading books based on real-life crimes? Does it make a difference when the victim is a child? Discuss in the comments!