A Review: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
At first, the storyline of Girlchild may seem a bit worn-out: a young girl, raised by a single mother in a trailer park, suffers from her family’s mistakes and struggles to comprehend them.
But within a few pages, readers will realize how unique Hassman’s novel is. It reaches dizzying heights of devastation, weaves an prodigious collage of stories and voices, and begets Rory Hendrix, one of the most memorable and winsome youths in recent fiction.
Much of the novel’s ingenuity emerges from an unusual structure—short chapters with cryptic titles and varied voices and sources. Rory herself narrates the majority of the story, but Hassman juxtaposes this more traditional narration with letters from Rory’s grandmother, reports from a social worker, flashbacks, fabricated Girl Scout tasks, and inexplicable riddles. Potential solutions to one such puzzle illustrate the author’s keen use of suggestion and ambiguity:
A) Things like this do not happen in right triangles.
B) The darkness is overcome by degrees.
C) Roots are being squared.
D) The little girl will.
This varied method of narration creeps into readers’ consciousnesses and resonates with every aspect of our imaginations; the result is deep entrenchment in the story and its emotion. You are warned, readers: this book will make you feel, acutely and, often, terribly for Rory’s fated life. And yet this precocious girl—I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s Charlie Bucket and his own ill beginnings—lifts the novel out of devastation and into hope. Despite living in a place where, “…men hunt and trap everything from birds to stray hubcaps to small girls using slingshots, shotguns, and the rustle of candy wrappers,” Rory—discerning enough to recognize and fear such men—easily convinces readers that she will prevail. And being too young to physically escape, she finds solace in an old Girl Scout Handbook:
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 without injuring the binding and the how-tos of packing a suitcase to be a more efficient traveler. 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.
It’s not uncommon to encounter fictional young folk who are, very obviously, wiser than their adult counterparts, but my praise for Hassman’s Hendrix family, a series of women who, “true to tradition,” end up pregnant at fifteen, could span pages. The author displays grim humor in the family’s attitude and in clever Rory’s role: “…[Grandma] didn’t even knock wood when she told me I’d better keep my legs closed if I wanted to keep my future open.” With amazing ease, Hassman constructs a family that Rory can love but cannot rely on so that her Girl Scout Manual—dependable, incontrovertible—becomes a replacement in the absence of other guidelines.
Rory will capture readers’ affections and sympathy, and the novel, with its creative form and rhythmic prose, will unnerve and enthrall, even as the story delves into tragedy. With Girlchild—a book that far surpasses most debuts—Hassmen reminds readers just how much fiction still can accomplish.
SCORE: 5.0/5.0 Girl Scout badges
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, February 2012
ISBN: 9780374162573. 288 pgs.