The real Lolita : the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world

Sarah Weinman examines the plight of 11-year old abductee, Florence “Sally” Horner, and how her predicament helped to shape Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous 1955 novel, Lolita. Weinman, a writer and journalist makes astute use of the Nabokov papers, recently made available for research by the Library of Congress, to deliver a well-researched and absorbing book that is equal parts literary analysis, history and true crime story.

Weinman’s book shifts back and forth between Sally’s story and the development of Nabokov’s novel. The book opens in 1948 with 11-year-old Sally being pressured by members of her peer group into shoplifting at a local five-and-dime store. This proves to be a fateful event which would bring her into contact with her kidnapper, Frank LaSalle. After manipulating Sally into boarding a bus to Atlantic City, LaSalle adopted the pretense that he was Horner’s father. The kidnapper was then able to relocate himself and his victim across the United States over a nearly two year period in which Horner was abused by her captor. The pair ended up in California where Sally finally found the strength to reach out for help. She was able to return to her family, but that was only the start of her troubles. Social proprieties of the time never allowed Horner to fully purge the events from her consciousness, and her peers, fully aware of her plight, were nothing short of vicious.

Weinman examines the development of the novel from Vladimir Nabokov’s initial ideas to its conclusion and beyond to its legacy. Nabokov derided the idea that his novel was based upon any true life incident but the connection had been made before Weinman investigated the topic. Weinman acknowledges this and documents the history of writers who had made a correlation between the fictional Dolores “Lolita” Haze and Sally Horner; most of these investigators were able to make vague connections that typically followed a passing mention of Horner and LaSalle within the text of the novel. With the release of Nabokov’s Library of Congress papers and some smart investigative journalism, Weinman manages to unearth details buried within the text of Lolita that make it nearly irrefutable that Horner’s plight served as the inspiration for sections of the book.

Weinman revives the discourse that has been circulated for decades about the novel Lolita, and adds her own voice to the dialogue. She fully acknowledges the literary genius of the novel, but rightfully critiques what she contends has been a misplaced empathy for the narrator of the book, Humbert Humbert. Humbert’s role as narrator has turned him into a defacto protagonist in the eyes of many readers. Readers see Humbert’s ‘nymphette’ version of Dolores Haze, and she becomes nothing more than an object within Humbert’s story. Weinman drives home the fact that Humbert is an unreliable narrator and a pederast, a fact which is frequently lost in the intoxicating artistry of Nabokov’s prose.

It’s important to note that the book is not exploitative. Weinman sympathetically confronts the tragedy of Sally’s situation while injecting a much-needed feminist theory into the analysis of the novel. Sally, like Dolores Haze, died very shortly after escaping her captor and was never able to relay her own story.  Moreover, Sally was the victim of the era in which she was raised, one that preferred not to speak about, or acknowledge personal tragedy. Weinman attempts to explore Sally’s mindset by looking at court transcripts, newspapers and the experiences of other girls and young women like Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart, who survived their kidnappings. In addition Weinman spoke with Horner’s surviving family to give Sally some semblance of a voice.

Weinman’s book becomes even more fascinating when she begins to unearth details of Horner’s plight within the text of Nabokov’s novel. At times it can feel like she’s grasping at straws while in other instances, she manages to make some pretty astounding connections that are difficult to ignore. Overall, the book is a thought provoking work that compounds our understanding of one of the most controversial works of American literature.