Girlchild is narrated by Rory Dawn Hendrix, “feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter.” She lives in the Calle de la Flores trailer park, in the “rum-and-semen-stained outskirts of Reno.” Rory’s father is long gone, and her mother’s good intentions are drowned in alcohol. Despite this bleak setting, Hassman’s daring debut novel is a joy to read. The rich and dense language, full of surprise, word play, and revelation, makes the book a sensual pleasure, every chapter a prose poem.
The Calle is a ghetto “where leaving is an act of will akin to suicide, in force and determination, and in the loneliness it creates for those left behind as well as those who have moved on.” But leave she will, as we root for her with the ferocity we reserve for underdogs. Girlchild is a tale of escape, of emancipation, of breaking free from the consequences of our parents’ bad judgment and of the expectations of the class we are born into.
Set in the 1980s, the novel describes a milieu so disorganized and chaotic that even joining a Girl Scout troop is an unattainable dream. When Rory checks out the Girl Scout Manual from the school library for her “troop of one,” she is grappling to create a world that is predictable and orderly, a connection to mainstream America’s ethic of hard work and its rewards. She is struggling to find an alternative to the addiction and abuse that would lead her to repeat the lives of her forbears.
Even as an insider, Rory provides an outsider’s view of a subculture whose “economic system . . . is generalized reciprocity. ” The system works, she explains, because “if the bounty is not shared. . . the nicotine cravings of one father could cause him to beat his son and the police might be called.” And the police are what Calle residents fear most.
Calle women become pregnant before they finish high school. Rory’s grandmother was thirteen, her mother fifteen. Calle men “hunt and trap everything from birds to stray hubcaps to small girls using slingshots, shotguns, and the rustle of candy wrappers.” The worst offender is Rory’s “uncle,” whom she calls The Hardware Man. When Rory’s mother works the graveyard shift at a bar called The Truck Stop, Rory spends the night with her teenage babysitter, whose father molests Rory when she is only seven. This was the most difficult part of the book for me, as the mother of a young girl myself, even though Hassman handles the material with deft subtlety and innuendo, using redacted type in place of graphic scenes.
Rory’s sharp intelligence and wit endear her to us and make us believe she will survive. But her academic success distances her from her family and makes her feel even more alone. She is a freak, a miracle, an aberration. Her mother is not sure if Rory’s IQ “is due to her tending, her carelessness, or some joke between God and the school board.” Her teachers are no help. “The idea that Calle kids might have some potential hiding in our dirty creases gave them a scare,” Rory says. “It’s not like they work on commission.”
In only 270 pages, Hassman covers twelve years of Rory’s life. Such a wide sweep of time is ambitious, but not unheard-of, in a coming of age novel. I am reminded of Justin Torres’s We the Animals, a short novel that also covers an entire childhood with episodic and startlingly poetic and visceral chapters.
Hassman is a risk taker, like her protagonist, who says “I may not have been born captain of this boat, but I was born to rock it.” Although the book does work as a chronological and cohesive narrative, it is pieced together with mathematical word problems, excerpts from social worker reports, chapters from a made-up Girl Scouts manual, court documents, redacted type, and fake-anthropological research. Sometimes the concise, elliptical language made it necessary to read paragraphs more than once.
The cocky attitude covering up vulnerability, the verbal pyrotechnics, and quirky humor reminded me of one of my favorite recent coming of age novels: Emma Rathbone’s Patterns of Paper Monsters. The mythic quality and the silence after abuse called to mind Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River. Reading Girlchild aloud also makes me think of spoken word poetry and rap. But Girlchild, like Rory, is not just a product of its lineage. It is also delightfully sui generis. Hassman takes the classic bildungsroman story arc and shakes it up into a kaleidoscope of gorgeous sensual experience made up of pointy shards that can cut you through.