Meg and Susan’s parents die and they go to live with their Aunt Ruth and their three sons. Ruth uses the girls as scapegoats and objections of desecration, teaching her sons’ lessons on taking power from another. To help them become strong by free them of their sense to take pity on another human being. Ruth’s house is a hangout for many of the neighborhood boys, who complacently watch or take part in the destruction of a child’s body and soul.
“I’m not going to tell you about this. I refuse to.
There are things you know you’ll die before telling, things you should have died before ever having seen. I watched and saw.”
“I eventually made the decision to soften some of what happened and leave some out altogether. It’s still pretty extreme.”
It is impossible to review a book with such a notorious reputation as Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door without addressing its reputation. Yes it contains scenes of every form of child abuse imaginable. The violence is graphic and the story itself is revolting. A story about child abuse should be. Children who are abused are far more likely to be abused by someone they know, Ketchum’s book reflects this reality. What I would encourage readers to focus on is the language used in Ruth’s house. Meg and Susan are subjected to verbal abuse before the physical abuse. Pay close attention to the dialogue, to children being trained to speak of women and girls as bitches or whores. Language is a reflection of thought and a culture where this style of speech is rampant is going to lead to violence against the group spoken of this way. If you do not believe me look up domestic violence statistics.
From a literary perspective The Girl Next Door is a masterpiece. The first person narrative of David allows the reader to focus not on him, but the events around him. David is forced to make decisions no boy should ever even contemplate. He wants to do the right thing, but he does not know how. Ruth the clear villain of the tale is still written in a way that she exists, the boys in the neighborhood like her and it is clear to see why.
Despite the sheer horror of the situations presented The Girl Next Door is a morality play. David’s inaction to save a person’s basic humanity reflects our own complacency in the violence within our borders just outside our doors. The reason the Girl Next Door is so harrowing to read, is because we are all David. We are aware of evils occurring, and we watch them soaking in all the details for a perverse curiosity, but we do not act. The novel is meant to make the reader feel uneasy, and it does. This is the reason the setting was changed to the late 50’s a time in American society we pretended everything was fine, though we all knew it was not.
In the End;
The Best art is a reflection of life. The purpose of art to help us explore the areas of humanity that are so intense we need to reflect upon them. The Girl Next Door is a powerful piece of art. I would ask readers to forget that it is inspired by actual events. Do not call it exploitive because of this. , Law and Order claims its stories are ripped from the headlines. I would argue they are more offensive as they sanitize the most heinous crimes into disposable entertainment. Ketchum chose the first person narrative in the book to take the focus off the physical safety of the narrator and get the reader to worry about his moral safety. Ketchum states the novel is an expression of what scares and pisses him off. Every time he opens a paper and reads a story about someone abusing the one who loves them. A book about the torture of a child should make you feel uncomfortable. If you choose to address an issue such as this issue without attempting to evoke a strong reaction, what is your goal?
Additional note; If this is too intense for you I recommend you read Red by Jack Ketchum. It demonstrates his abilities in a far less extreme nature. The book is a personal favorite of mine.