Smith ’82 Explores How Fear Distorts Reality in First Novel

Book by Patricia Smith ’82.

Book by Patricia Smith ’82.

“At seven thirty, with SJ still asleep, Deirdre Murphy left the house for school. She walked side streets shaded by trees in their glory—pale autumn reds, yellows the color of honey. She scuffed through piles of leaves, each whoosh a reminder of every other autumn and every other beginning of the school year, the only way Deirdre knew how to mark time. She kept track of events based on the girls she taught: the drama queens, the freaks, the year they were all brilliant. This year, Deirdre could already tell after a week of classes, was the year of the needy girls.”

So begins The Year of Needy Girls, the debut novel from Patricia Smith ’82. The book is published by Kaylie Jones (’81) Books, an imprint of Akashic Books, headed by publisher and editor-in-chief Johnny Temple ’88.

The Year of Needy Girls tells the story of Deirdre, a dedicated private school teacher from a working class background, and her partner, Sara Jane (SJ), who live in a tolerant New England town, divided by a river and by class, until the murder of a 10-year-old boy changes the way the townspeople look at themselves…and at others. Publishers Weekly says, “Smith’s crisp prose and dedication to moralistic ambiguity make for a provoking read,” while Library Journal notes, “Smith’s first novel successfully builds tension and a sense of dread among the picture-perfect New England fall.”

Smith, who grew up attending public schools, had very little knowledge of the private school world until she attended Wesleyan. “When I went to teach at The Pike School [in Massachusetts], I was definitely stunned at first to see the kind of privilege and money that many of my students had,” says Smith. “I drew on those feelings when creating Deirdre, but I’m not sure I’d say that I feel closest to her, though. There are definitely parts of me that make up SJ, too. But in terms of what happens in the book to both Deirdre and SJ—that came from my imagination.”

Patricia Smith ’82

Patricia Smith ’82

It was the real life kidnapping and murder of a child in Cambridge, Mass., when Smith was a teacher there in the late 1990s, that became the jumping off point of The Year of Needy Girls. “In those days, following the arrest of the two men [who had ties to NAMBLA—the North American Man Boy Love Association], many in the LGBT community feared a public backlash which, luckily, didn’t happen,” says Smith in her author’s statement for the book. “But I wondered…what if it had? What if the boy’s parents had publicly—and misguidedly—called for the removal of gay teachers? Gay coaches? Librarians?”

“I can’t remember whether that idea was the inspiration all along or not, but it was always in the back of my mind when I was first figuring out the story,” says Smith today. “Originally, though, I had thought to write about the ways homophobia can ruin a family, and, over time, it morphed into a town.”

Smith, a College of Letters major at Wesleyan, drew on her own 30-plus years of teaching experience—both in a private school setting and, since 2006, at The Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology, in Petersburg, Va. — to paint a realistic picture of the joys and challenges of the profession in The Year of Needy Girls. “With the book published and out in the world, I’m hearing from some young teachers who are appreciating what the book says about the profession and its difficulties,” Smith says. “And while I started this book thinking it was all about the effects of homophobia, I’m realizing now that it is just as much about teaching.”