Tupelo Hassman's girlchild is a tough read.
It's not because the book is dense and impenetrable, although Hassman does stray from a conventional narrative structure. No, girlchild is a tough read because the string of events that happen to the novel's protagonist, Rory Dawn Hendrix, are so harrowing. But it's not the events that make girlchild such a compelling novel, it's Hassman's telling of them. In Rory Dawn she creates a fresh and original voice that turns a coming-of-age tale into something more.
Rory Dawn lives on the Calle, which is to say she lives the Calle de las Flores trailer park in Reno, Nev. Her four older brothers live in California, so she grows up alone with her single mother Johanna, who's a hard-drinking bartender at a local watering hole called the Truck Stop, and yes, she likes to bring home random men.
I know what you're thinking at this point—yet another Ivy League MFA student is fetishizing white-trash culture, and wasn't this trend over a couple of years ago? But despite her degree from Columbia, Hassman actually is writing what she knows. She has stated in interviews that her background and Rory Dawn's are much the same.
However, the semi-autobiographical nature of girlchild is almost beside the point. Hassman writes well enough that it doesn't matter if she grew up on the Upper East Side of New York City—Rory Dawn's story of growing up smart and poor in the 1980s stands on its own. Here's how Hassman describes a parent-teacher conference, at which Rory Dawn is told she has a high IQ:
"I sit at my desk and feel my cheeks, stinging and hot, while Mr. Lombroso explains the test scores again. Percentages and peculiarities, these words are about me and they buddy up and crawl across my desk. I touch the tip of my Number Two pencil to their bellies and watch them snap shut like roly-polies do. They are the same gray as roly-polies, like Ticonderoga lead, and I color them in, to hide them, cover them completely so no one will see."
Girlchild is told in a stream of short chapters, some just a paragraph or a sentence long. Most chapters are from Rory Dawn's perspective as she grows up, but some are from an older voice with a more anthropological portrayal of life on the Calle. There are also letters, documents from a social worker's file, math problems, and a drink recipe. This postmodern collage is perhaps overused in general, but it works well in this case, given the scattered nature of Rory Dawn's existence and the physical and mental trauma she endures.
The book also has a running conceit that Rory Dawn is obsessed with the Girl Scout handbook, and she tries to make it make sense in her world. Hassman writes, "No one on the Calle gives advice about things that I can find easy in the Handbook's index. Things I'd be embarrassed to ask, like what are all the points of a horse and how to make introductions without feeling awkward or embarrassed. 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 idea of the Girl Scouts provides the idea of structure for Rory Dawn's life and the idea that there is a life off the Calle, if only she can figure out how to get there. But the path out of town is a devastating one, both for Rory Dawn and the reader.
Hassman's world is not without humor or joy, however. There are good parts to life on the Calle, like the love between Rory Dawn and her mother. (The title of the book comes from the pet name Jo calls Rory Dawn as she puts her to bed.) Girlchild is also the story of Johanna in a way, as Rory Dawn explains how her mother ended up stuck going nowhere, despite living in a home with wheels.
Reading girlchild will make you cringe, but it will also make you smile. Mostly it will make you feel for Rory Dawn, a character who will stick with you long after the last page is turned.