The frightening twosome would inspire a whole series of mainstream and not-so-mainstream movies: Badlands by Terrence Malick, Wild at Heart by David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino’s and Tony Scott’s True Romance, Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. These movies feature Starkweather and Fugate as merely smudged antecedents, unrecognizable as direct characters, present only in their angst and isolation.
Liza Ward’s riveting debut novel, Outside Valentine, differs from the cinematic exploits. Instead of creating an artistic glorification, Ward, a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program, combines concise and lyrical language with a startling empathy. Her empathic style explores, on one level, the almost romantic excitement the murders inspired in those not directly involved, and then, even more deeply, how painful memories do not disappear simply because a particular chapter in history has come to a close.
If you think of a novel as a complicated machine, then one of the best ways to understand how it functions—to determine what makes its component parts mesh and smoothly whir along—is to ask yourself a simple question: “Who is telling us this story?” In the instance of Ward’s beguiling and multilayered novel, the question is particularly germane. From a purely technical viewpoint, the novel is made up of three voices evolving simultaneously, each of which could have made an independent novel. Taken together, though, the thematic connection between the three voices shows how the devastating legacy of the murders will carry on long after Starkweather’s electrocution.
After an argument with her stepfather, Caril Ann Fugate flees out her bedroom window and into the woods behind her house, where she spies red-haired Charles Starkweather carrying a .22 rifle. Soon after this meeting, he pledges her his eternal love. Like any teenage girl, Caril is desperate for recognition and love and, in this way, the novel slyly brings us into the world of a disastrous young romance. Four years after the murders that still haunt her hometown, Lincoln teenager Susan Hurst—called Puggy by her parents—struggles with the usual issues of girlhood, as well as the tensions brewing in her own family: Her unhappy mother is demanding and unpredictable; her father exhausted and complacent. Puggy finds solace in her secret obsessions: the man her mother briefly married long ago, the dark and desperate love between Caril Ann and Charlie (“They looked all tangled up in each other. I wondered if I’d ever find someone to love. I was tangled up alone.”), and her desire to befriend Lowell Bowman, son of two of the murder victims. Thirty years later, Lowell Bowman, now an antiquities dealer in Manhattan, still dreams of his parents’ murders. Beyond the rift that has grown between him and his wife, Bowman must contend with the contents of a mysterious safe deposit box.
If one were to point out a weak point in the novel, it would perhaps be Bowman’s voice. Where the girls’ stories speak to each other in such a way as to heighten their pains and passions, Bowman’s story is, at times, ponderous and repetitive. Though clearly haunted and unable to fathom his profound grief, he can’t seem to express himself beyond an annoyance at his wife’s pestering.
Ward, whose paternal grandparents were among Starkweather’s victims, makes her most dramatic leap of empathy when she gives voice to one whom, some would say, has no right to be heard. The story of Caril Ann Fugate is the most dramatic of the three, gaining our sympathy and understanding in the beginning, then taking us along on a horrific ride in which we lose the understanding but retain the sympathy, if only a morsel of it. We first find Fugate standing in her bedroom wearing her beloved pink kimono, hoping for the protection of her mother against her bullying stepfather:
“Roe came closer and the belt looped from his hand like a crazy eight. ‘Caril Ann,’ he said, looking ape as I’d ever seen him, no matter how bad I’d been. The purple was crawling up under the bristles of hair.
“‘I’m not going anywhere like this,’ I said, putting my hands on my hips and sticking my bare knee a ways out from between the folds of silk. There I was, a lady in the middle of his ugly mess.”
While the extent of Caril Ann Fugate’s involvement in the Starkweather murders has never been clear (Starkweather said she actually committed some of the murders; she said he held her hostage), her voice echoes throughout the novel as the figure who stands between the prime murderer and the friends and survivors struggling to understand and cope. Outside Valentine is a touching and lyrical portrayal that does not seek, as so many movies have, to sensationalize the Starkweather murders. Instead the author focuses, with detail and complexity, on the fact that real lives were lost, that people actually suffered, that generations will continue to explore the tragedy of these events.