Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: August 26, 2008
Genres: Childhood, Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Literary, Southern Grit
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Ellie’s life has never been what you’d call normal. Her mother is unusually high strung, enough so that having people over to the house or going out as a family is not feasible. But her father is the best father in the world. He works in the general store nearby and 11-year-old Ellie goes by every day after school to help him. When her mother gets pregnant everyone is happy. Until she falls down the cellar stairs. She doesn’t lose the baby, but Ellie’s father brings Tess, a teenager who sells tomatoes at the store, to take care of her and help around the house. Ellie calls her Tomato Girl and she turns Ellie’s world upside-down.
I try not to be mad at God. I know I’m to blame. It’s my fault Mama twisted her back and the tomato girl came to stay.
Author Jayne Pupek writes Tomato Girl from Ellie’s point-of-view making all the events bigger and more mysterious. Yet, as a girl just edging into young adulthood she retains a child’s accepting nature about so much of what’s happening around her. At times, I found her naivete about her own body and human relationships a little hard to believe especially as she is able to handle situations involving her mother’s descent into madness with a fortitude most adults don’t have. The two don’t quite align. What does shine through in Pupek’s writing is the pathos of someone facing adversities far beyond their years—without any support network at all. Ellie takes on her parents’ burdens and unconscionable behavior all in a way that makes the heart ache.
Pupek immerses the reader in small town Southern life. From the charming aspects of a general store selling baby chicks for Easter to the darker side of segregation. The only person Ellie can turn to is a friendly elderly black woman, but doing so is shut down by everyone around her. They may be able to turn a blind eye to what is happening in her home, but fraternizing with a Negro is not allowed. This kind of thing, coupled with the growing dysfunction in her home tips the novel from Southern grit lit into full-on Southern Gothic.
Tomato Girl starts out with a shimmer of odd, but slowly and relentlessly plunges down, down, and down. There is no sense of having reached the bottom and being able to push back to the surface until the very end. Even then, the feeling of darkness only partially abates. I didn’t know, as I was reading, that Jayne Pupek died at age 48, less than two years after publishing the novel. No cause of death is listed that I could find. I wonder if she was ill and knew there would be no more time for another book, so poured everything into this one. There is just that much trauma amongst the characters. Bad news, tragedy, and disappointment are piled on poor Ellie to the point of disbelief, but Pupek blends it in a way that keeps Ellie’s indomitable hope at the center. Tomato Girl stayed with me for days as did the regret that there will be no more from Pupek. Her voice was quintessentially Southern and I would have liked to see where she was going to go.