In 2010, readers everywhere honored the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the aftermath of that celebration I'd like to tell readers about another novel that charts the coming of age of a sister and brother, this one set not in the South but out west.
When we first meet them, 8-year-old Molly and 10-year-old Ralph are inseparable. It's the two of them against the phony, boring, bourgeois world of adults. Over the course of several years, they divide their time between their proper family home in suburban Los Angeles and the isolated Colorado ranch of their Uncle Claude. During this time, and partly as a result of living this often confusing double life, their relationship falls apart.
It seems the older Molly gets, the more of a misfit she becomes. Ralph is at times so exasperated with her that, the narrator tells us, "while he still loved her, he wished oftener and oftener that she did not exist." Molly herself has no illusions about her effect on other people. "I know I'm ugly," she says. "I know everybody hates me. I wish I were dead."
Entering his teens, Ralph becomes obsessed with, and at times exults in, his budding manhood. Molly, on the other hand, for all her intellectual precocity, desperately wants to remain a child. She wears a bathing suit when she takes a bath, and thinks of herself as "a long wooden box with a mind inside." Of all the differences threatening the siblings' love for each other, this will be the fatal one. When, in a moment of weakness, Ralph asks Molly to tell him all the dirty words she knows, she feels deeply betrayed. He has become one of them, lost to the corrupt world of adults, and Molly vows never to forgive him.
Stafford drew much from her own early life for The Mountain Lion. Surely some of the novel's power comes from the fact that she wrote it — in just nine months — not long after her brother, Dick, was killed in an accident. As children they had been as close as Molly and Ralph.
In an author's note to an edition published in 1971, Stafford confessed that when she wrote the last line in 1946, she was filled with remorse over what she had done to Molly. I won't reveal what Stafford did to Molly, though I will say that, as with the best and most satisfying novels, once you've finished The Mountain Lion, you can't imagine it ending any other way.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva, with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.