Thursday, June 3, 2010

Premature Book Review: Candy Barr

We like to think of the 1950s as being very Leave it to Beaver. Wholesome and good. Mom and apple pie. Cops were honest, people caring, and sex existed solely for propagation of the species. In fact, the 1950s were a time of sexuality, perversion, and violence. All you have to do is look at Bettie Page, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Marilyn Monroe, and our subject here, Juanita Slusher, aka Candy Barr.

When you write a book about a sex-symbol you are treading shaky ground. You might adore said sex-symbol, which will impair your judgment. You might despise her, also an impairment. Thus, with books of this nature it is always hard to tell if you are going to get an honest story worth reading or empty praise or condemnation. Fortunately, Ted Schwarz seems to have his head on straight. The inside jacket claims he has over one-hundred hours of interviews with Candy Barr, and she seems quite forthcoming. It is obvious from the text that he is on her side, but the story is more than that of Candy Barr, it is the story of America in the middle of the twentieth century.

Juanita Slusher grew up in a world of institutional misogyny. A man's sexual behavior was his business and the law believed, in a rather Sadean fashion, that men were pawns of their natures and incapable of monogamy. Women, on the other hand were deemed prone to monogamy, and thus an adulterous woman was considered mentally ill. Candy Barr was subject to sexual abuse by family and neighbors before her famous figure became apparent. Her first sexual experience occurred when her sister sold her virginity to a stranger for one dollar. After running away to Dallas, she was raped and forced into prostitution. Where are your Ward and June Cleaver now?

Thus far this book deals with difficult issues. It is not fun. It is not the tale of a glamorous star loved by millions. Schwarz handles the material well. There are typically two ways to treat stories of abuse. You can go the way of Stieg Larrsen's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I have not read, but understand to be a brutal, off-putting portrayal of violence against women, or you can take the "Lifetime Original Movie" approach, where the violence makes you feel for the victim, but not necessarily sickened by the act itself. There are problems inherent in both; if the story is too off-putting your message will not get across to many readers, and some are titillated rather than offended; if the story is too gentle to the reader then you are downplaying the heinous nature of the act. Schwarz just gives us facts here. There is no description of the rapes that occur. There is no description of the men involved. He simply states that there was a rape, and that rape is unacceptable to civilized people, though it was not considered unacceptable in 1950s Texas.

I am not far into this book, but it is very interesting. Schwarz's style is quite good, and highly readable. Eventually we will see Candy Barr tied up with the mob, particularly with Jack Ruby, and involved in the investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It should prove an interesting story, and a good read, particularly for the non-fiction lovers out there.

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