Monday, November 11, 2013

The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

I wish I knew what The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress  was about.

I often ask my students to tell me what their book is about, but not the plot.  My goal is to make them think of their book thematically.  It often takes them some time, but this approach usually works.

I know what happens in The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, I understand that plot and comprehend the characters, but somewhere along the way I lost all sense of what the book was about.

The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress is a classic American road trip novel.  The road trip has been central to American fiction since Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at least.  Two people on a journey across the country who always discover that the journey is the destination and that the only thing worth discovering is always something you had with you all along.

Our heroine is Rose, an English girl searching for Dr. John Wheeler, an American who helped her through a difficult period in her youth.  It was never exactly clear to me why she wanted to find Dr. Wheeler, but that didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the novel.

Rose joins Washington Harold, an American friend of a friend who is also looking for Dr. Wheeler whom he believes may know the reason for his wife's suicide.  Neither Harold nor Rose know each other, neither is particularly suited to traveling with the other, but they make for interesting reading as they journey across America by camper van, to save money, in 1968, hoping to meet up with Dr. Wheeler in Los Angelos at the Ambassador Hotel.  Dr. Wheeler is working with Robert Kennedy who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination and will be appearing at the hotel in a few weeks time.

Most American readers will know what happens to Robert Kennedy at Los Angelos's Ambassador Hotel in 1968.

I'm convinced that Harold and Rose play a significant role in Robert Kennedy's assassination, but I've no idea what it was. The novel takes the reader across America, to the Ambassador Hotel, through Robert Kennedy's public appearance there and then right up to the hotel's kitchen door, but does not show us what happened to Senator Kennedy in the room beyond that fateful service entrance.  Instead, the final pages of the book are a newspaper article from the following day about an un-named girl in a polka-dot dress who emerged from the hotel shouting "We shot Kennedy!"  No one heard anything more from her nor did anyone ever find out who she was.

I looked her up on Google to discover that there really was a "girl in a polka-dot dress" who did shout "We killed him!" after Robert Kennedy was shot.  However, there were several young women who claimed to be the girl, all questioned by the police who did not pursue investigations into any of them.

So now that I think about it, not only do I not know what this book was about, I don't even really know what happens in it either.

Which is sometimes also the case with my students.


Teresa said...

Hmm... I bought a copy of this at a library sale a few weeks ago because it was $1 and I've been wanting to read Beryl Bainbridge. Well, you say you enjoyed the novel. Maybe when I finally get around to reading it in 3 or 4 years I'll come up with some idea of what it's about--or not. I'm pretty good at making up something if I don't know, so that's probably what I'll do :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

See, this is the type of book that would make me think that I'd missed something, and that I was dull. At least if I ever read this (it does sound good) I'll at least know that I'm not the only one.

Bybee said...

I have problems with Beryl Bainbridge's books, but I'm not going to give up entirely until I read The Birthday Boys.