We all want to know where we come from, who our ancestors were and what they were like. Sometimes, though, the answers we uncover are not the ones we expect. This is the case in the young adult novel “The Truth About Mary Rose” by Marilyn Sachs.
Mary Rose is an 11-year-old girl who is proud to be named after her mother’s sister. The first Mary Rose died at age 12 in a fire after warning everybody else in the apartment building of the danger.
Mary Rose wants to learn everything she can about her heroic aunt. But she is thwarted at every turn. No pictures survived the fire, so she does not even know what her Aunt Mary Rose looked like. Her grandmother – the first Mary Rose’s mother – claims that Mary Rose was an angelic child without a fault or flaw. Her mother – the first Mary Rose’s sister – remembers her as weak and vulnerable, “a poor little thing.” Her uncle refuses to talk about the first Mary Rose at all.
But Mary Rose is determined to uncover the truth, even if it means eavesdropping on adult conversations. Then one night she hears something shocking about her late aunt. The story shatters all her illusions and threatens to destroy her self-image.
Mary Rose must find a way to come to terms with the information she now possesses. Her family is ready and willing to help her. But in the end, it is she alone who must decide how to go on with her life.
“The Truth About Mary Rose” is told in first person from the current Mary Rose’s point of view. Mary Rose is a direct and honest — sometimes brutally honest — narrator. For instance, she is blunt about her grandmother’s racism toward her father, who is from Puerto Rico. She tells the truth to others and expects the truth from them. When she believes she is not getting the whole story, she has no compunctions about snooping.
Mary Rose is also resourceful and resilient. Although she is devastated to overhear the shocking truth about her namesake, she is able to seek advice from her father. He tells her that it doesn’t matter what the first Mary Rose did or did not do. Mary Rose is her own person and should be free to lead her own life rather than living in her ancestor’s shadow. He also reminds her that the upsetting information came from one person and is not necessarily true. Mary Rose bounces back and begins to accept that there is good and bad in all people.
“The Truth About Mary Rose” hits a home run in dealing with memories and legacies of dead loved ones. It embraces the ambiguities that exist when a person dies, especially when that person dies in unusual and unexplained circumstances.
Unfortunately, “The Truth About Mary Rose” is no longer in print, but it is available on Amazon Kindle. Fans of author Marilyn Sachs will recognize Mary Rose’s mother, Veronica Ganz, as a character in some of her other works.
Because the book was published in 1973, it may seem dated to some young readers. There is no texting, no Googling and no email. Young children may find the book a little slow and confusing. Tweens and young adults, however, are likely to enjoy Mary Rose’s search for information about her long-dead aunt.