FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

June 25, 2018
Daniel Falcone
A Reporter’s Reporter: a Conversation With Seymour Hersh
Gerald Sussman
America’s Cold War “Tugboat”
Jonathan Cook
The Defiance that Launched Gaza’s Flaming Kites Cannot be Extinguished
P. Sainath
A Long March of the Dispossessed to Delhi 
Sheldon Richman
What Does Trump Have Against Children?
Lance Olsen
Caught in a Trap of Our Own Making: Climate Change, Blame, and Denial
Seth Sandronsky
A Safe Black Space
Kary Love
Crying Children and Due Process of Law
Gary Leupp
Why It Just Makes Sense for the U.S. to Withdraw from the UNHRC
John Laforge
Kings Bay Plowshares Action Names the Trident with Blood
Mel Gurtov
After Singapore, Is Iran the Next US Target?
Kent D. Shifferd
A Different Perspective on Peace
Uri Avnery
Two Souls
Laura Flanders
National Suicide Point?
Ludwig Watzal
The Death of Felicia Langer
Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail