Girlchild
by Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; 288 p.

I never understood my father’s insistence on knowing nothing about the writers whose books he reads. I’m nosy, and I like to know things, even though sometimes those things smack you in the face.

But not with Girlchild. Tupelo Hassman has to exist for me as an idea, a notion of a writer, the way my teenage self barely comprehended that there was a person who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird; it didn’t just spring fully formed from the bookshelf in Mrs. Gilchrist’s classroom. I never want to read an interview where some well-meaning writer asks Hassman how much of herself went into Rory Dawn Hendrix, or how much of Rory’s ragged Nevada life Hassman may or may not have lived.

Girlchild is a hundred tiny stories that coalesce into a book. Most are a few pages long; some are less. “My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock. Welcome to the Calle,” Rory says in the second story. What kind of beginning is that? A girl saying those things to herself is a girl who’s already lost, but Rory hasn’t. Her story encompasses a lot of things — Girl Scouts, compassion, abuse, the way family can expand and contract around and against people — but what elevates it above most other books in which terrible things happen to a small girl is the voice. Immediate, resourceful, frightened, Rory sees all the little things, all the specifics of her world and all the things she avoids, using language that almost tells you what happened but couches it all in vagueness and deniability and something that grows and grows as it gets closer to art. “Places you didn’t even know you were signing your name will always be marked with your hand, but despite every new day’s resolution to never do it again, you will.”

Rory’s story belongs to her, this girl whose mother walked out on her father, whose brothers live somewhere else, who has a talent with words but backs away from the attention displaying it brings. But Hassman’s book is more then just Rory’s story. Under the words and images, there’s fury and compassion. Like Willy Vlautin, Hassman locates her stories in the dark corners of bus depots, the dingy bars way off the main road, the welfare reports that only tell half the story. Girlchild is just a story about a girl finding her way off the Calle, out of the trailer park, but there’s no “just” about it. Hassman is never going to tell you how terrible Rory’s life is, how you ought to pity her, how you shouldn’t take what you have for granted. She’s just going to show you, over and over again, how people keep moving, keep scraping by, keep surviving, and how sometimes a girl with a yen for the world of the Girl Scout Manual can stop thinking she’s the feebleminded product of feebleminded stock. Defiant and warm and full of mothers and daughters who can’t always protect each other but will always try, Girlchild is too smart for me — a beautiful, heartbreaking book about a place that is exactly as ugly as it seems, and yet it’s home. It’s just down the road. We just don’t like to see it.

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