Breezy Point Author Pens ‘FBI Girl’
The book opens with the letter that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent to Maura’s G-man father congratulating him on her birth. Through her California girlhood, Maura clings to the shadow of protection, menace and importance that her father’s job casts over her imagination, always believing that the good guys win. She wants to be one of the good guys, and behind the tongue-tied schoolgirl hides the courageous little spy, always on the lookout for evil… and dashing disguises—. “I draw one outfit after another for the upcoming Girl Scout fashions. My drawings are from the life of intrigue, action, suspense and power— all those exotic things that make the world go round.”
She applies the same imagination to her father’s silences. In a large family of laughing priests, grandmas and beauty queens, Joe Conlon is a man of forbidding facial expressions and few words. As he begins to shut everyone out except Maura’s younger, developmentally disabled brother Joe Jr., Maura sets about to decode her father’s utterances, leading her on a journey to find her own voice. In the wake of an unseen tragedy that shakes the California family to it’s New York roots, Maura finds empowerment through writing and performing.
The connection between religion, gender, ethnicity and identity is a subtle backdrop to Maura’s coming of age. Behind the story of father and daughter, Conlon-McIvor shows what a religious, loving, shy girl goes through in a world that often mistakes shyness for shame or stupidity. One especially interesting aspect of Conlon-McIvor’s storytelling is the way she subtly weaves into the narrative the rituals of a Catholic education and the importance those rituals take on to a child. Conlon-McIvor portrays her younger self’s thoughts on God, religion and the church officials that surround her clearly and wittily, with an ear for the urgency (and sometimes fear) such contemplation can provoke in a sensitive kid. “I let go, and my crown of white roses, orange ribbons and orange beads falls on Mary’s head. I try to ignore the snakes underneath her feet who sneer at me, saying who do I think I am giving Mary this mighty crown that will help her drive evil out of the universe? I wonder how Mary likes stomping on snakes without any shoes. That is something Nancy Drew would only dream of doing.”
The Conlon’s Irish heritage is a related theme that infuses the story. Conlon-McIvor shows how dinner party jokes, taunts from neighborhood children and a realization of difference are incorporated into a child’s view of themselves. The seemingly throw-away remarks Maura’s grandmother makes during Maura’s trip to New York show a painful side of the American immigrant story that is often ignored in family reminiscences. Maura’s fascination with her relative’s brogue and colorful expressions reveals these secret feelings and gives the book one of it’s more interesting exchanges.
FBI Girl is best enjoyed as a whole. Conlon-McIvor begins telling the story from a young girl’s point of view. The voice can be a little irritating, much like that of a dramatic, precocious child telling her favorite fairy tale with all the sound effects. Some of the dialogue is slightly too precious and the repetitive details, while much like a child would notice them, get boring, overshadowing the otherwise compelling story. Sometimes the painstaking reconstructions of dinners, conversations or nighttime reflections seem too forced to ring true. Contrary to the sacred writing tenet, “show, don’t tell,” more telling and less showing in the first few chapters of the book would do more to frame the story. As the book goes on, the voice matures. The last two chapters are heartbreaking and absorbing. The author’s bittersweet love for her family shines up from the pages of these chapters. The reader feels triumph for Maura as she begins young adulthood, and is left wondering what the rest of her life was like, up to and including becoming a published author.
Wave readers will be sure to enjoy the description of Breezy Point that pops up in Chapter 7 along with a charming photograph of the Conlon mom and kids enjoying the jetty.
The epilogue ties Conlon-McIvor’s personal story in to the world at large. The reader learns that the people who are important to Maura also made an impact on the communities they lived in, both in California and New York. Locally, The John P. Conlon LIHFE Towers in Queens, low-income housing for seniors, were named in honor of her uncle in 1973.
If you are interested in seeing the woman behind the book, Maura Conlon-McIvor will be reading from FBI Girl on September 7 at 7:30 p.m., at St.Edmund’s Hall in Breezy Point. She will be available to sign copies of the book.