Time for full disclosure/shameful confession. When I first turned these pages, I thought: Uh oh, a trailer park, molesting Grandpa, gambling-addicted Grandma, drunk Mama, pedophilic “Uncles,’’ teenage pregnancies. Think Oprah, Dr. Phil, not to mention those Beans of Egypt, Maine, those Jukes of upstate New York. Mea culpa. I should have paid attention to the classic MFA workshop warning: There are no new stories. It’s how you write the old-shoe ones that makes the difference.
And what a difference Tupelo Hassman makes. “Girlchild,’’ Hassman’s debut novel, unfolds a compelling, layered narrative told by a protagonist with a voice so fresh, original, and funny you’ll be in awe. This novel rocks. In these postcards from the edge, using language both buoyant and brave, she tells the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix, who views herself as the “feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock.’’
Believing herself doomed by DNA, Rory comes of age in Calle de las Flores, a seedy Reno trailer park. Fortunately, Rory is smart; books can save her and pave a path out of there. Unfortunately, intelligence is a double-edged sword. Report cards with all A’s are not prized by Calle residents, who wait until the 1st and 15th of the month to fritter away their welfare checks on slot machines, booze, and drugs. In such surroundings, it’s far better to be a feebleminded insider than a pariah with a high IQ. Still, brains come in handy for spotting danger: “Calle men hunt and trap everything from birds to stray hubcaps to small girls using slingshots, shot guns, and the rustle of candy wrappers.’’
Mirroring her fragmented life, Rory’s tale is revealed in short episodic chapters - some a few pages, others only a sentence. Sprinkled throughout come typed social workers’ reports, school assignments with space left to add homework and submit requests to St. Jude, blank pages for Girl Scout notes and autographs, chapters with large chunks blacked out, redacted, suppressed.
Rory’s Bible, her Dr. Spock, her Emily Post, her survival kit is the Girl Scout Handbook, which she has borrowed so many times from the school library, the librarian stuck it in the 10-cent bin. Rory treasures every ragged page, seeking lessons not only on how to form her own troop of one but also how to lead her life. Foundering, with no role models, she turns to the handbook to study “all the points of a horse and how to make introductions without feeling awkward and embarrassed.’’ Moreover, she observes, “I can hear all I want about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll on the playground, but only the Girl Scouts know the step-by-steps for limbering up a new book . . . and the how-tos of packing a suitcase . . . The only thing harder to come by around here than a suitcase is a brand new book, but I keep the Girl Scout motto as close to my heart as the promise anyway: Be Prepared.’’
There are, however, certain things that Rory can’t prepare for: nocturnal visits by the Hardware Man, her mother’s “blackout nights and Alka-Seltzer mornings,’’ the missing places at the family table - father (unknown), four far-away, much-older brothers, who “show up here only when driven by crisis or guilt’’ - and the flight of her grandmother to California because “she can’t fight that one-armed bandit anymore.’’ Even the most badge-festooned Girl Scout couldn’t be prepared for the mysterious scabs that sprout all over Rory’s mouth following her molestation. And what manual can explain why Viv, her only friend, gives her the three-fingered salute and moves away.
With an unflinching eye, Hassman dissects the Calle’s hardscrabble landscape, its murky pond, dead-end paths, its depressed citizens “known by their burnt fingertips, their bruises, their long sleeves in summer,’’ people “who will never in their lives sit down to table without black under their nails, no matter how red their skin from scrubbing.’’ Yet, despite such pervasive gloom, Rory, who was given “Alice in Wonderland’’ by one of her mother’s long-gone boyfriends, dreams of a world where, “instead of lint in my pockets there’d be cake that said EAT ME.’’
However cakeless, Rory clings to her handbook and to the library, which is “the only place I feel like myself.’’ Because of her top-percentile scores, the school principal suggests college. Afraid to consider such a prospect, she sabotages the spelling bee; winning would take her out of town and also require a dress she can’t afford. “Wrong is my ticket home,’’ she realizes. When she deliberately gets C’s, she discovers that being ordinary still doesn’t help her belong.
Will Rory reach her potential? Or will she, like the generations before her, throw it all away? Perhaps she’ll settle for vocational school, thus satisfying the low expectations of Child Protective Services. She’s scared. Escaping the Calle would mean “that everyone else got left behind.’’
By the time Rory hits bottom, another pit of misery opens up. And yet, alone in the trailer with her mother’s hope chest accentuating her hopelessness, she remembers her grandmother’s words, “Someone’s got to make it and it has to be you.’’ The reader can only agree. After all, Rory has internalized the most important section in the Girl Scout Handbook: Finding Your Way When Lost.
Was there ever a more loveable wannabe Girl Scout looking to find her way? In “Girlchild’’ Tupelo Hassman has created a character you’ll never forget. Rory Dawn Hendrix of the Calle has as precocious and endearing a voice as Holden Caulfield of Central Park. When you finish this novel, your sorrow at turning the last page will be eased by your excitement at what this sassy, talented author will do next.
Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels, the most recent, “Of Men and Their Mothers.’’ She can be reached at mameve@mameve medwed.com.