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.
By Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pp., $23
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature, American University, Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.