Yours, Jean by Lee Martin is a book that was inspired by the murder of Mildred Georgine Lyon (Oct 5, 1928 – Sept 3, 1952) in Illinois. The young librarian and English teacher was 23 years old when she was murdered at 1130am inside the school where she worked.
Yours, Jean tells us the story about the beautiful librarian and English teacher Jean De Belle. Of course, in the French language ‘belle’ means ‘beautiful.’
The year is 1952. Jean arrives at Lawrenceville High, in Lawrence County, Illinois, at the beginning of the new school year. She has this new job, a new living arrangement, and a bright future ahead of her. And she looks forward to that future.
She recently broke off her engagement to Charlie Camplain. That was not an easy decision as Charlie had been a big part of her life. Their connection dates back to their school days when during the mandatory morning assemblies, they were seated next to each other. And one day, they started talking. Their talks led to walks, more personal discussions, and ultimately to Charlie’s proposal which Jean accepted. But then things started to change.
Well-to-do families can make most pain go away simply because they can afford the best. They can turn grievances around with complimentary services that make others accept their apologies. But as good as some have it, hardship is for all. Nobody is spared from unrequited love. Everyone experiences moments where all we really want is to be loved for who we really are.
But what love is differs for everyone. In the book we find love expressed in various forms and shapes. Teenagers and their crushes wear each others jackets and rings while older couples define their love by true companionship and loyalty. Then there is the unconditional love of parents for their children and what they are prepared to do to keep them safe. They do not always express that love in the way the child would appreciate however, these parents are willing to swallow their pride and pay the ultimate price.
We also see love’s vulnerability. To be with the one you love doesn’t mean you will never be lonely again. On the contrary, Martin describes several couples who deeply love another and/or their children. However, in crucial moments when all that the other needed to hear was that they are loved, no matter what, words fail. Silence builds until a few empty words are exchanged as an excuse to end the painful situation.
Martin expertly describes what we all experience. One day we get called on and are dragged into someone’s problems as they need our help. Can we help if it goes against our religion or our own way of life? And what do we do when our personalities change? What when one day, we don’t feel the same anymore. What to do when one day, something that used to click, fails. What happens when one day we discover that the one we love has changed? Do we leave that person or, is our love stronger than that? Do we assign blame? Do we try to find out if we ourselves are still the same? Is change a deal breaker or a natural consequence of getting older?
All these questions pop up in the lives of everyone around Jean De Belle. She rents a room in the house of Mary Ellen McVeigh, a widow. Jean finds a safe home with her. McVeigh is also a colleague and the mother of Robbie Sue who attends Lawrenceville High. The mother-daughter relationship is not perfect and in typical teen-anger, Robbie actually causes real harm. But she also redeems herself by extending a hand to the one she initially declared to hate.
We meet the front desk clerks of the Grand Hotel. Night clerk Norville Rich only has eyes for Lorene Devereaux while the day clerk, Zelma Partridge, is very much interested in Norville. None ever said the right words, all kept their true thoughts to themselves afraid to hurt someone with those words. But one day those words had to be said.
All people have ties to the young students at Lawrenceville High. And due to unexpected circumstances, the parents are forced to pull together. Some never would have spoken to each other as they are from different social backgrounds. But when disaster strikes, they have to because the alternative is to lose all they love.
Lee Martin is the author of several novels including ‘The Bright Forever’ which was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Price in fiction. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
The book’s cover is a clever compilation of all the elements that play a role in the book. The engagement ring, the promise of forever, unconditional love. ‘Yours, Jean’ was how Jean signed the first note that she gave to Charlie. The story takes place during the fall hence the leaves. And in between the changing colors of those leaves, a trail of blood. The promise of a new season brought to a hold.
The Real Case
“She said no.” He held up his empty palms and shrugged. “What else was I to do?” This is what the real killer said.
The case of Mildred Georgine Lyon is in databases that cover school shootings. Mildred was shot with a .22 caliber handgun. She was shot seven times: once in the head via the right temple, once in her lower throat, twice in the heart, and three times in her abdomen. She had a defensive wound on her right hand that she must have lifted to shield herself. The gun was supposedly thrown in a river.
Her killer was Charles Petrach (25 at the time) from Gary, Indiana. They had met in a journalism class while attending Ball State Teacher’s College in Muncie, Indiana. He was an Army Vet and an unemployed insurance salesman. He dated Mildred for two years before she broke off the engagement.
On Nov 12, 1952 Petrach was sentenced to 150 years in prison with additional punishment. Every September 3rd, he was to be locked up in solitary confinement. The judge had further stipulated that Petrach would not be eligible for parole for at least 50 years. On Oct 24, 1957 Petrach was transferred from Menard (IL) to Joliet (IL). And despite the judge’s stipulation he was paroled on July 11, 1967. Petrach was released on Aug 24, 1967 after serving just 15 years. I have not been able to find why he was granted parole. I did find that he died in June 1983.
Martin wrote a fantastic book. As it comes out in May 2020, I have not written a lot about the plot. You need to read that for yourself and see how all the story-lines intertwine. The pace is good and the chapters are well proportioned. Martin expertly weaves one storyline with another and despite the many threads and characters, all remains clear. I read it in one sitting!
If you love to read about people’s personal lives and want to discover what story Martin created that is based on a true crime, this book is for you. Highly recommended reading!
Mildred Georgine Lyon’s picture on the website Find-A-Grave was uploaded by C. Jirsa. The photo credits for the grave stone belong to Sharon Kay Dean. The photograph of Martin’s book as well as the collage are mine (AdS)