Published by Picador
Publication date: February 5th 2013
Genres: Childhood, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
Well, well, well…finally, after two months of all-right-but-not-great reading I’ve been knocked off my feet. Not by a new release, but by a 2013 novel from my Goodreads to-read list. I’m not going to quibble; I’m just thrilled to have read something I loved so much that it’s hard to find the best words for it. Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild is a piercing novel of childhood with Rory Dawn Hendrix, a seven-year-old living in Reno, Nevada in a trailer park with her mother, a bartender who likes to drink and date the wrong men. She is such a supernova spirit that she is not so much being written as being let loose. Things like no Girl Scout troop to be found or friends to join one with don’t stop Rory. Instead, she starts her own troop with herself as the only member. She introduces herself as the
Feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock,
when really the women in her family just seem to be blessed with pretty faces and the inability to make good choices about men. Still, the feeble minded label sticks even though there’s little proof of it, especially in Rory’s case.
Hassman makes no overt attempt at pulling on heartstrings with the pathos of Rory’s reality. Instead, she interfuses Girlchild’s chapters with the reports of the case worker assigned to Rory’s mother, fake multiple choice questions on very real-life subjects and Rory’s own factual recitation of her life. She keeps chapters short and each leads to the next with the off-handed nature of cocktail party banter even if the topic is anything but appropriate for a party. The Girl Scout’s Handbook, Rory’s bible, has chapters of its own where Hassman smashes its bland old-fashioned lessons against the realities of Rory’s life. At every turn, Girlchild astounds via Hassman’s ferocious imagination.
It can feel hard to admit loving a story of childhood abuse but Hassman uses Rory’s pain as a crucible—the hottest heat makes the strongest steel. Rory Dawn Hendrix is that kind of steel and Girlchild is that kind of novel. Yes, her mother leaves her with an abused teen babysitter who pimps her out to her father to avoid his sexual assaults herself, but this horror is tempered with the love of the Hendrix women, who, with all their faults, unleash a righteous wrath when the truth comes out. There are no undamaged women in the novel but love, humor and the will to survive abound. At the center of it all, there is Rory Dawn with her molten core of white-hot determination and life force, leaping off the page into the heart.