I was returning a book to our public library and stopped by the “New Books” section on the shelves located on the way out the door. It’s a habit (and no, I refuse to preface that with “bad”) and one that sometimes yields favourable spur of the moment finds. This time three were sitting there looking highly appealing, but I knew so many others have already been sent to us that are waiting, waiting for attention. THESE are the ones that need to be read before delighting in others (so I convinced myself). However, Girlchild was one that looked way too interesting and promising to be left behind.
When I first began, the pitch-perfect writing was pure delight, I settled in knowing my impulse check out was going to go swimmingly:
“Warped by the weight of too much snow and disappointment, beat down by too many punches from the fists of Calle boys, the DE LAS FLORES have scattered to the winds. All that’s left to speak for the neighborhood that grew up around it is the word CALLE, its two Spanish L’s asking why on a desert-bleached sign.”
However, the more I read, the further from delight those words began to hold. Don’t get me wrong, Girlchild is exceptionally well written, it borders on the brilliant actually, and the perspective of (in the beginning) 6-year-old Rory Dawn is astonishing, incredible and amazing. But then…then, in those words, there are terrible things that happen to R.D. Things that no child should ever endure or have worldly knowledge of. Rory Dawn’s sexual abuse at the hands of the “Hardware Man” that lives in the trailer next door and by his daughter sickens your stomach and deeply furrows your brow. The history and pattern of abuse against the Hendrix women will make your heart race in pain.
“Mothering is not this family’s strong suit.”
Rory Dawn comes from a long lineage of trailer park trash. Her destiny leads her to believe she will befall this one in which every woman in her family has succumbed- abuse and then motherhood when they themselves had barely left childhood behind. Yet, Rory is a spunky, determined girl focused on not letting this fate befall her. I wasn’t sure if I could continue, but to be honest, the writing and perspective is brilliant and I couldn’t keep my eyes away. My stomach clenched and my heart raced, yes, but my eyes could not be lifted from the pages. This is Hassman’s debut and it is considerable. Just cast your eyes upon this writing:
“Grandma couldn’t hold on to Mama and her sisters, Grandpa’s pathologies hid so much more obediently than did hers, hiding and biding their time. The State awarded Grandpa all four of his daughters, in gingham dresses and throats collared with lace, and he grabbed on to them with both hands, tore them apart, and put them back together so confused that by the time Grandma had pushed the custody papers through every in-and-out-box of the State of California to get them back, her girls thought she was the enemy. Their mother’s return shined a light on their pain, and like little girls always do, they thought this meant she was the one to be feared while the man with the big hands, who had used them in ways they would spend their lives struggling to overcome, was though of with longing as dirty and chewed as his fingernails.”
All of this stunning prose meets you before page 100, and just continues and no matter how more and more disturbing these words become, you cannot tear yourself away from her breathtaking way with the English language. So much revealed, feared and understood in such a small use of space. If you could just read it for her stunning way with words, every short and sweet sentence a powerful burst of art. And, sorry, but I just can’t help it, I feel like I have to keep writing passages from the book, because just look at how freaking wonderfully they are written!
“Single-wide, double-wide, a house with a hitch. Single mom, gravel drive. Propane by the gallon, generic cigs by the carton, and solitaire round the clock. Cousins and animals multiply like cars in the front yard. Nothing around here gets fixed…The road is paved with uncles. Smokey, Barney, Johnny Law, Pig, uncles with their badges, with their belt buckles, say, “Hey Sugar, Toots, Sweet Thing, is your mama home?” hand already through the already ripped screen door, finger on the latch.”
Girlchild is the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix and her flat out, full on determination to not follow in her mother’s, grandmother’s, or every other single woman imprisoned in the Calle’s footsteps. How Rory gets to celebrate her 15th birthday is with the wish “this is the year you don’t get pregnant”. With fierce, often eloquent and wholly sarcastic pluck, R.D. shares her life story. It is brilliantly written, it’s punctuated with sharp, short sentences filled with great and significant meaning. Through horror and disgust you will read of R.D.’s upbringing, but you will always cheer her on! With her trusty Girl Scouts Handbook, the 14th amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck vs. Bell by her side, Rory is armed and ready to leave this unfortunate childhood and life in the dust. By the end of this you too will be standing on your chair cheering her forward and onward.
“I’m pretty sure that Viv never got to be a real Girl Scout, coming as she did from a place like the Calle, where patches are for mending and oaths are only muttered underneath the breath. But if Vivian Buck, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock, if that girl had lived, she’d be in my troop, and with three fingers raised in Promise we’d show them just what the third generation can do.”
Girlchild rightfully earns its 4.5 stars – damn near perfection. It was a disarming read at times, but also one that I gobbled up in two short days. I highly encourage you to read in order to revel as I did in Hassman’s amazing gift. Tupelo Hassman’s picture is included on the back flap and I could never shake the sense of great sadness coming from her eyes and expression. Her very interesting and unique website can be found here. This is an astonishing debut and I am considerably interested in reading more of her future work.