three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
user_rating: 
0

737041.pngTupelo Hassman received an MFA from Columbia University. Girlchild, a look at poor white America, is her debut novel.

The Story: In a trailer park outside of 1980s Reno, there is only one question for sassy, intelligent Rory Dawn Hendrix: how will she make it out? The odds look slim: her mother, Jo, an alcoholic truck stop bartender, had her first child at age 16 (and then three more); and poverty, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and family dysfunction define Rory’s and her neighbors’ lives. Diary entries, social workers’ reports, memories, jail records, letters, questions from an aptitude test, and blacked-out text that suggests an incidence of incest reveal Rory’s struggles as she tries to escape her sordid life. "Someone’s got to make it," her grandmother (an addictive gambler) tells her, "and it has to be you."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780374162573

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Hassman is such a poised storyteller that her prose practically struts. Her words are as elegant as they are fierce. A voice as fresh as hers is so rare that at times I caught myself cheering, and it wasn’t necessarily for the kid." Susannah Meadows

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Hassman avoids falling into stock characterization—the deprived but talented protagonist who overcomes great odds to achieve success—by emphasizing the gut-wrenching details of Rory’s childhood. … Hassman gives us chapters of blacked-out prose, a form of omission that suggests Rory has endured acts too heinous for words." Megan Mayhew Bergman

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Hassman] turns an anthropologist’s eye toward this complex subculture [of trailer park communities]. … The real pleasure of the book comes from following the wisecracking, tough and sensitive Rory as she struggles to survive and escape the sort of life no girl should have to lead." Michelle Quint

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"I’ve got to caution readers with two hands—it might not be what you’re expecting; it’s not a linear story; it’s impressionistic. … [Hassman’s writing] focuses intently on the novel’s machinery—its structure, its voice, its form—but often at the expense of two elements most readers hold dear: character and conflict." Sam Allard

Critical Summary

Girlchild has many of the trappings, not all successful, of a first novel penned by an MFA graduate—self-conscious prose; heavy-handed gimmicks such as structural shifts in narrative; Rory’s reliance on the Girl Scout handbook for guidance. Yet, with her fresh, new voice, Hassman offers rare, visceral insight into a difficult that life most of us have not had to endure She spares no detail: "Hassman writes with such candor and offhanded certainty about what I’d always viewed as stereotypes," notes the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "… that I wondered whether she was allowed to come down this hard." There’s nary a silver lining in this compelling tale of a hardscrabble, abused life, but when there is, it shines all the more brightly.