I think it was around 2008 that I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, maybe 2007. I’d been going through a classics streak and trying to get through all those books I should have read but never got around too, and I plowed through the book during the last days of a run of the flu (actual influenza, with fever and body aches, the whole nine yards. YUCK. Also, don’t judge my reading choices when I’m ill…). It was…a creeptastic book, that was for sure. Humbert Humbert is a jarring narrator and Nabokov did an amazing job at absolutely making my skin crawl with how awful Humbert is. And at the time, I had absolutely no idea that much of the story parallels a real life case, one that Nabokov absolutely knew of, because it’s referenced right there in his novel. I learned of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman from an episode of All the Books! the other night, and I actually sat up out of bed to put in on my Goodreads TBR list, thinking it sounded fascinating and figured I’d get to it sometime in the murky, distant future. Imagine my surprise when I came across this at the library the next evening before book group! I literally gasped and marched it right to the checkout.
Sally Horner was 11 years old, in the midst of stealing a five-cent notebook from a drugstore in 1948, when Frank La Salle, pretending to be an FBI agent, stopped her and told her he wouldn’t turn her in and send her to a reformatory school if she would report to him. Fearful of her single, overworked mother finding out she’d been stealing to impress some girls at school, Sally agreed. She didn’t see him again for months, but when he reappeared, he meant business. Before Elizabeth Smart, before Jaycee Dugard, before the scores of women and children that have made headlines for the horrors they’ve suffered, there was Sally Horner, abducted at age 11 by Frank La Salle, who held her captive and raped her for twenty-one months.
There are obvious content warnings in this book for rape and child molestation (and not just Sally), along with a description of a mass shooting. Just like in Lolita, Frank takes Sally on a cross-country journey, far from her native Camden, New Jersey; from Atlantic City to Baltimore, onward to Dallas, and finally San Jose, he forces her to pose as his daughter. It’s not until she trusts a neighbor enough to answer her questions truthfully that she’s able to ask for help. Sally returns home just shy of her thirteenth birthday, having spent close to two years being held by her rapist. Unfortunately, the tragedy doesn’t end there. After her return, Sally lives for only two more years.
Mingled with the recounting of Sally Horner’s far too short life is the story of how Nabokov wrote Lolita, how older male predators were a theme he explored throughout his literary career, how he struggled to tell the story he wanted. Sally wasn’t his inspiration; he’d been working on the novel for years before her disappearance and eventual return made headline news across the country, but the details of what happened to her did seem to inspire him to be able to pull the whole story together. Even in the screenplays he wrote (which were ultimately mostly rewritten by director Stanley Kubrick, although Nabokov still received credit, along with the Oscar nomination) made allusions to the case, making his denials of shaping the story around the Horner case seem facetious at best.
This is one of those stories that I can’t believe hasn’t been better known until now (and it makes me wonder what other books exist that are heavily based on real-life cases and the general public isn’t aware of it. Can that even be done anymore?) Although far too many people misinterpret it, Lolita is a cultural phenomenon at this point; even if you haven’t read it, odds are you’ve at least heard of it and have a vague idea of what it’s about. That this could stay so far out of the mainstream that even Sally Horner’s family had no idea of the connection until a family member read the brief Wikipedia entry on Sally is utterly flooring to me.
Ms. Weinman mentions several times throughout the book how difficult this story was to research: practically everyone connected to the story has since passed away, records, both official and non-, weren’t saved or maintained. and even the places where the story took place (such as Sally’s hometown of Camden, NJ) have disappeared or undergone such great changes that they would be unrecognizable to someone from Sally’s day. Hearing something like that from the author made me enjoy the book all the more, because I’ve often thought that researching a nonfiction book must be an incredibly daunting task. It was kind of cool to hear that, at least in this case, my suspicions were correct.
The Real Lolita is the book where the literary biography meets true crime. Even if you’ve never read Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known work, this would still be a great read, and if you’re into true crime, this is definitely right up your alley. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!