“Valentine” is an angry novel, a blast of feminist outrage against a toxic culture that breeds racism and violence against women. The narrative hurtles forward with urgency of a thriller, and it emulates the darkest spy fiction by making it painfully apparent that the good guys are at least as likely as the bad guys to be punished. Elizabeth Wetmore’s mingled love and fury for her native West Texas electrifies her prose; despite its grim subject matter, her first novel is exhilarating to read, because the characters are so alive, the drama that engages them so compelling.
It begins in the aftermath of a rape, on the morning of Feb. 15, 1976, as 14-year-old Gloria Ramírez slips away from passed-out Dale Strickland and stumbles across an oil patch miles from the Odessa drive-in where she unwisely got into his pickup truck the night before. When Mary Rose opens the door of her farmhouse later that morning, she sees a girl so badly beaten she’s surprised she had the strength to knock. “Glory,” the girl says when asked her name; she has sworn never again to use the first name her rapist “said again and again, those long hours while she lay there with her face in the dirt.” Dale turns up looking for his “sweetheart” after “a little dustup,” but his manner quickly becomes menacing when it’s clear Mary Rose isn’t buying it; she holds him off with a rifle until the sheriff arrives.
Wetmore unfolds the increasingly ugly reaction to Dale’s arrest and Mary Rose’s decision to testify against him through close-up accounts of several female lives. They provide vivid snapshots of an oil-boom economy and the society it spawns, with men trapped in backbreaking, dangerous jobs and women trapped in marriages to men whose rage is frequently directed at them. “Men die all the time,” thinks 10-year-old Debra Ann, youngest of Wetmore’s protagonists. “In fights or pipeline explosions or gas leaks.” And the women? “Usually it’s when one of the men kills them,” we are informed by a Greek chorus of waitresses that chronicles the odyssey of Karla, barely 17 with a new baby when the novel begins.
Heavily pregnant, Mary Rose moves into town with her daughter. She didn’t feel safe on their isolated farm, but the phone calls keep coming: “Know what happens to race traitors?” one asks; others just spew ethnic slurs. Her husband blames her for opening the door; she grows to despise “the hatefulness and bigotry” she hadn’t noticed in him before. Glory’s mother is deported five weeks after the rape: “Bull----,” says the angry attorney prosecuting Dale; Alma Ramírez worked on a cleaning crew for years without anybody questioning her legal status until her daughter had the temerity to get raped. The fact that Glory was stupid enough to get into Dale’s truck prompts many white Odessa residents to brand her a tramp and argue to dismiss the case “before we ruin a boy’s life.” No wonder Glory refuses to appear in court.
Mary Rose insists on testifying, and it’s not just men who disapprove; she’s asked not to come back to her church’s Ladies Guild after she explodes when someone calls Glory’s rape “a misunderstanding.” Tightly wound Suzanne, who insists “I’m no bigot” as she repeats unfounded gossip that Glory’s uncle is blackmailing the Stricklands, is Wetmore’s exemplar for the fear that underpins such women’s anxious propriety. Suzanne has pulled herself up from poverty via hard work and marriage to a supervisor at the ethylene plant, but she’s still putting some of the proceeds from her Avon and Tupperware sales in a secret bank account. “Never depend on a man to take care of you,” she tells her daughter. “Not even one as good as your daddy.”
Wetmore depicts a few decent men in addition to Suzanne’s husband, including Glory’s gentle uncle and a traumatized Vietnam veteran befriended by Debra Ann. Yet even the good ones have a hard time taking off their West Texas blinders. Corinne, the oldest and bitterest of Wetmore’s protagonists, is still grieving the recent death of her husband, who emerges in flashbacks as a supportive, loving partner. But she hasn’t forgotten that she had to get his permission to go back to work as a teacher after their daughter was born, or that he said wistfully, “I wish you could be happy staying at home.” Debra Ann’s mother, Ginny, who abandoned her family on Feb. 15, voices the agonized conflict of all the novel’s mothers: “[She] loves her daughter, but she feels like she’s sitting at the bottom of a rain barrel, and there’s a steady drizzle filling it up.”
These interconnected stories play out against the backdrop of a harsh, lonely land lovingly evoked by Wetmore (“stars and space and quiet, the winter songbirds and the sharp smell of post cedars”) as she mourns its despoiling by derricks and pump-jacks. She’s not painting a pretty picture here, but it’s palpably real, and her characters’ grit and resilience infuse the novel with a spirit of hard-won resolution. The legal system fails Glory — no surprise there — but a form of rough justice is meted out elsewhere, enabled and protected by female solidarity. “Valentine” is a gripping, galvanizing tale from a strong new voice in American fiction.
Harper, 320 pages, $26.99
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for the Washington Post.