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Saturday, July 27, 2013

girlchild, written by Tupelo Hassman. Picador, Farrar Straus Giroux. Raincoast Books, 2012. $17.00 ages 14 and up

"Mama never did escape the damage done to her reputation after taking that ride downtown. Despite the promises of equal opportunity and protection under the law, so rich in the air in 1969, that night her arrest record got all shuffled up with her social-services record, and soon the childcare she got so she could go to college was canceled, and with it her courses, and Mama went back to the school of hard knocks."

I could not put this book down, despite my aversion to its heartbreak. There was also humor which gave my heart and mind a much needed release from the sorrow that Rory faces on a day-to-day basis.

The Calle de Las Flores trailer park is fittingly described by Rory in the first few lines:

“I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they’re coming back for their kids.”

She lives there with her mother, who is ill-equipped to care for her. Her life is one of poverty, fear of social services and worry about being from 'feebleminded' stock. Johanna, her mother, is a bartender at the Truck Stop, who drinks too much and has lost her first four children...all sons who soon found their way out. Her mother's mother, Shirley Rose, has her own demons, although she is caregiver to Rory while Johanna is at work. Shirley Rose provides some sense of stability for her granddaughter. She wants Rory to be the one to break the mold, and she believes that she can be. Rory is a terrific student, and brilliant. Will it help her find her way to a different life than what plagues the women in her family?

When Shirley Rose moves away, Rory (at 6) becomes the victim of a neighbor girl and her father, the Hardware Man. When he finally leaves the Calle, Rory is left to find guidance in a battered copy of The Girl Scout Handbook. She learns needed life lessons, and she learns to take care of herself and become the person she wants to be. She is wise beyond her years, capable of letting go of misconceptions about the life she is destined to live, and able to take all that is good from her experience to change her path.

In her debut novel, Tupelo Hassman refuses to write a predictable tale. Instead, she fills its pages with polished, intense language that will have readers tearing up and cheering for a young female protagonist who, by enduring every detail of her lonely, sad existence, stands tall and proud. The odds may be against her; but, Rory Dawn Hendrix is funny, fresh, smart as a whip, and defiant in the face of adversity:

"Take this one to the bank: birds are hatched from eggs and are always egg-shaped. Maybe there's no escaping the shape that molds you, no getting around how you got started even if you do break out. I haven't found a mirror yet that doesn't reflect the curves of the Call back at me, my dirty ways, my fragile teeth and bad skin, my hands that won't stop picking at themselves. The Girl Scouts win again. And maybe V. White does, too. Except for one thing. Wings are born from that shape. They don't come from any other." 

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