Review: “Girlchild” by Tupelo Hassman

I, Casey Brown, am a self-proclaimed expert at finding new books to read. It feels like I, at this point, know all the places to look for book recommendations. There’s Pinterest and Buzzfeed and the “Customers who Bought This Also Bought” section on Amazon. There’s Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds and the What Should I Read Next website. But even as an expert finder, sometimes, the suggestions feel very repetitive.

Gone Girl. Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Beautiful Ruins. We Were Liars. Don’t get me wrong, I love any and all book suggestions (and I loved all the books I just mentioned), but it’s sometimes hard to find a something entirely new, one that hasn’t appeared on half-a-dozen “Must Read Books for your Book Club” lists. But it looks like Bustle has a surprise in store for me (in an article entitled “12 Books Everyone in Your Book Club Will Love”… who would have guessed?!) It was a little story called Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman.

The titular girlchild is Rory Dawn Hendrix, a sharp-tongued street kid who lives in the Calle, a trailer park community outside Reno with rules of its own. Rory Dawn lives with her Mama, a fierce young mother who tends bar at one of the town’s many drinking establishments. She, like Rory’s Grandma Shirley Rose, had her multiple children early into her teens, and both want to protect their youngest, full of brightness and potential, from the harsh realities most families of the Calle live every day.

Even Rory Dawn is aware she’s a little different. The one thing she wants in this entire world is to be Girl Scout, to the point that she carries a worn-down dog-eared old library copy of the Handbook wherever she goes. Rory also proves to be a spectacular speller, but even Rory doesn’t escape her childhood on the Calle without a few unspeakable hardships.

The book isn’t like normal novels with one long strand of conflict that wraps up at the end. Girlchild instead breaks itself off into little chapters — sometimes 10 or 15 pages, sometimes no more than a few paragraphs — in which Rory tells a little slice of her life. Some chapters are reports from the welfare workers who objectively reveal more of the kind of lineage Rory derives from. Some are passages from the Girl Scouts handbook, offering snippets of advice at times Rory needs them most. Some are paragraphs of blacked-out text, implying the things that Rory herself can’t quite admit. Each section adds to the reader’s understanding of Rory and where she comes from, thus giving you more of a reason to root for this little girl to make it.

I’ve never been one of those kids to highlight in books — I have such a religious-like devotion to paperbacks and hardcovers that even highlighting seems sacrilegious — but if I did, this book would be drenched in hot pinks and electric blues.

In talking about her neighbors, she calls them “family“, saying “I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they’re coming back for their kids.” The men on her street hunt “everything from birds to stray hubcaps to small girls, using slingshots, shotguns, and the rustle of candy wrappers.” In a chapter reflecting on decorum at a Calle funeral, Rory mentions “one should never slip behind the Porta-John brought for the day’s function and kiss her neighbor, who wears his father’s leather jacket and reeks of cologne…” 

The whole book is saturated with these beautifully simple but astute observations of the community around her, one with which she bobbles in the limbo of being an insider and an outsider. Rory’s little nuggets of truth and reality for her feel so tangible to me, it’s almost like a life I lived long ago. I’ve never lived in a trailer or in the desert or been raised by a single, teen mother who lost all her teeth by age 15, but Hassman’s writing and careful crafting of Rory Dawn makes me feel like I could have lived that life, that those memories could plausibly be mine.

And for a story set in such impoverishment and impossibility, it is largely hopeful, because in a place where people are built to fail, in a family largely known for high-school dropouts and teenage pregnancy, Rory proves again and again that she has that spark, that special something about her that could help her survive and succeed. And we all need to be reminded that we have the power inside of us to overcome, no matter who are family is, no matter where we came from, no matter what we’ve faced before.

I am so impressed that this little story of an aspiring Girl Scout from the Calle moved me so much. Thank you, Bustle, for bringing this gemstone to my attention, and I am definitely trusting you for my book recommendations in the future.

Until Next Time,
Casey Brown | Gal about Town

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