Tupelo Hassman’s debut Girlchild is an emotionally rich and complex picture of a smart girl brutalized and circumscribed by circumstances.
“My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock. Welcome to the Calle.”
Rory Dawn lives in Calle de Flores, a Reno trailer park, with her mother, who first got pregnant when she was fifteen. Rory is kid number five, after four boys and no father. Think of trailer park and white trash and that’s what’s you find in Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, Girlchild—violence, alcoholism, drugs, sexual abuse, generations of poverty-stricken single mothers trying to get by.
But Hassman takes some risks and the pay-off is something original. Structurally, the novel reads like postcards, or S.O.S. smoke signals, short, almost self-contained notes (I hesitate to call them chapters) each with their own title: “Teeth,” “Sunrise,” “a gambling establishment.” John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls this pointillism, from a technique of painting with small, distinct dots applied in patterns to form an image. In fiction, the story is told in seemingly random snippets, gradually amassing to something more. The risk, of course, is that the snippets never amass to anything. At times Girlchild suffers from that, especially after Rory Dawn’s abuser, Hardware Man, is found out, which happens fairly early in the book. The problem is no other plot complication opens up simultaneously to advance the literal tension.
But Hassman relies on more than structure to create something original. She uses a retrospective narrator, which invites more sophisticated language, imagery, insights, and even irony. “The physical punishment of Calle children rarely goes beyond a threat with a closed fist or a slap with an open hand, as both serve to curtail the offending behavior and reinforce the Calle’s core values of violence and physical intimidation without requiring a move from the couch.” Hassman convinces us with specific detail. “We come to Sizzler sometimes on paydays, but never dressed up, and the lady whose job it is to take away our dirty plates must think our outfits mean payday for her, because she doesn’t try to get me to reuse my silverware.” And she beautifully captures a five-year-old’s point of view: “And the shush she makes has listening in it and fear and the air in the hallway gets slow and distant to make way for the sounds I’m struggling to pull into my head with ears like magnets. And then there’s a knock at the door.”
Girlchild reaches beyond a first-person narrator, opening up to styles and speech patterns by including excerpts from word problems, letters, reports from a social worker, newspaper clippings, and the Girl Scout Handbook. It is the Girl Scout Handbook that threads through the entire novel, as if Rory Dawn is desperately clinging to something, even a worn-out handbook repeatedly checked out from the library (she doesn’t belong to a troop) to give her some guidance in a world filled with unreliable, even dangerous adults.
Rory Dawn defies the Calle odds and scores off-the-charts on exams at school. In fifth grade, a teachers urges her to compete in the Washoe County Spelling Bee. When she wins the first round, she also gets something she’s not prepared for. And here, Hassman makes the smart decision to not haul out the fatigued narrative of bright-poor-kid-makes-it-out-of-the-trailer-park-through-her-smarts. “Mama acts like I don’t belong to her anymore. And her saying it is just making that true too.” In the final round of the state-wide competition, Rory Dawn looks out to the audience and spots her Mama. “Mama sits tall like everyone else but her face is the only one here that looks how mine feels, on picture day or any other. Like maybe she’s in the wrong place.” In the end, Rory Dawn spells her word wrong, “because wrong is the only way they let you off the stage in this game.” “Wrong is my ticket home and I’m cashing it in.” Home being Calle with Mama.
In the end, the novel amounts to more than its snippets—it’s a tragic and emotionally rich and complex picture of a smart girl brutalized and circumscribed by circumstances. Rory Dawn may be like her mother, “a hungry dog… unable to remember when my dish was full or if it might be full again,” but she’s also a girl who made it beyond her fifteenth birthday without getting pregnant, a girl who remembers her grandma’s words, “Someone’s got to make it and it has to be you.”