FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Be Prepared

Rory Dawn Hendrix—the eponymous main character in Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel Girlchild—is obsessed with her copy of the Girl Scout’s Handbook because she knows she’ll never become a Girl Scout, given the reality of her situation.  She lives in a trailer park called Calle de las Flores, somewhere on the outskirts of Reno.  She’s borrowed the Handbook from her elementary school library so many times that, finally, the librarian puts the tattered book in the ten-cent bin so Rory can purchase it.  The Handbook provides her with a moral center to help her survive all the degradation around her and a worldview opposed to everything she observes in that environment.

 “No one on the Calle gives advice about things that I can find easy in the Handbook’s index.  Things I’d be too 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 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.”

Rory’s six years old at the beginning of the story and ten years older at the conclusion.  The novel is set during the 1970s and 80s.  Rory lives with her mother, Jo, in a decrepit trailer; her father disappeared long ago.  Her grandmother lives near-by but her four older brothers (from her mother’s first marriage) are scattered around the West, with wives and children of their own.  In order to support herself and her daughter, Jo has to leave Rory alone with a series of questionable baby-sitters. The atmosphere of the trailer park is not conducive for her daughter’s welfare.  Drugs, drunks, dependants, degenerates, and the generally ignored—these are the people Rory encounters every day.  As she observes in the opening paragraph of her story, “I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth.  Or lack of them.”  The statement also applies to her mother who had to begin wearing full dentures when she was in her mid-twenties.

At school, Rory excels, but her intelligence makes her into a pariah figure for her classmates.  In a moving scene in Girlchild, Rory attends a regional spelling bee and just as she is poised to win the match, she intentionally misspells the word knowing that if she wins the championship she’ll be even more isolated from her peers.  It’s a powerful scene in this painful novel that speaks volumes about the underclass conditioned to fail.  But she’s still her teacher’s pet until she makes a second move that ends that closeness.

She’s assigned an essay on the Fourteenth Amendment, Equal Protection under the Law.  She writes a scathing criticism of Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver W. Holmes’ decision to support the celebrated case of Buck v. Bell, upholding forced sterilization of the feebleminded.  Chapters earlier Rory referred to herself as the “feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock.”  All her life—in spite of her own remarkable intelligence—she’s known what it means to be labeled trailer trash because of where she lives.  When she submits her essay on the Holmes’ decision, she’s shot down once again—this time for criticizing a sacred icon.  Her fate at the school shifts from an academic future to technical training, presumably locking her into the same life as her mother, her brothers—all of her family before her.

Girlchild (the endearing term Rory’s mother used each night when she tucked her into bed) is a devastating commentary on the American class system: the urban poor, at the bottom of our society, who even if they have the intelligence and the ambition find it almost impossible to escape their predetermined fate.  They may not have been literally sterilized but socially the result is often the same.  Tupelo Hassman’s novel doesn’t seem like fiction at all, but the raw inhumanity of our system.

Girlchild
By Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pp., $23

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature, American University, Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
November 22, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
Silencing the Beast of Bolivian Populism
Paul Street
Washington’s Consensus on Neofascist Coups in Latin America
Jefferson Morley
JFK: What the CIA Hides
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: High Nunes on Capitol Hill
Sam Husseini
Can the Religious Left Take Down Nuclear Weapons?
Laura Carlsen
The Calling Cards of a Rightwing Coup
Shamus Cooke
What Bolivia Needs From Bernie
Ron Jacobs
Talking to Rudy, Trumpist Hand Grenade: Impeachment Days Four and Five
Andrew Levine
What’s Up With Trump and “The Deep State”?
Robert Fisk
Pompeo Scorns the Law Because He’s Never Had to Follow It
W. T. Whitney
The Coup in Bolivia: Who is Responsible? 
Mark Weisbrot
The OAS Has Deceived the Public, Terribly, on the Bolivian Election
Joseph Natoli
The Self-Unravelling Trump Cannot Avoid
David Rosen
Impeachment and Trump’s 2020 Campaign Takes Shape
Binoy Kampmark
Dropped Investigations: Julian Assange, Sex and Sweden
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Warring Balkans: From Zurich to Zagreb
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of Ecology
Jill Richardson
Explaining Trump’s Racism
Louis Proyect
Douma, Chlorine Gas and Occam’s Razor
Thomas Knapp
Trump’s Course Correction on E-Cigarettes: Great Idea, No Matter His Reasons
Howard Lisnoff
David Harris, Presente!
Michael Welton
Empowerment as an Ethical Endeavor
Mattea Kramer
Finding Peace Amid the New Opium Wars
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Calls for the Public’s Defense of Free Speech
Lindsay Koshgarian
Medicare for All or Endless Wars?
Chris Wright
Is Bernie Sanders Electable?
Jeremy Kuzmarov
An Urgently Needed Alternative Educational Model
Muzamil Bhat
No Fruit of This Labor: the Crisis of Kashmir’s Apple Trade
Mel Gurtov
Getting Rid of Treacherous Friends
Nicky Reid
Only Queers Can Save the Flaming Refugees of Love: Time to Decriminalize Polygamy
Ron Ridenour
Bolivia’s Foreseeable Coup
Gary Leupp
Ukraine: Ten Talking Points for Rational People
Clark T. Scott
With Circles Under Our Eyes
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Ecology and Consciousness: What Must Be Done
Robert Koehler
The Intelligence of Tomorrow
Seth Sandronsky
A Sacramento King’s Ransom: Local Tax Dollars and an NBA Owner’s Wealth
Yves Engler
Organization of American States in Bolivia and Haiti
Kim C. Domenico
We Know the End the of the World; It’s the Sound of Silence
Paul Armentano
Americans Love Their CBD, But It’s a Totally Unregulated Market
Scott Tucker
National Nurses United Endorses Sanders, Centrist Democrats Campaign on Illusions
John Kendall Hawkins
Blowing the Whistle on the Iraq War
November 21, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Reports of War Crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan Highlight the Failures of Both Wars
Steven Gorelick
Thinking Outside the Grid
William Hartung
America’s Arms Sales Addiction
Michael Welton
Christianity is the Religion of Imperialism
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail