Borrowed, Stolen

by Kelly McMasters ’05SOA
By Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 275 pages, $24
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GirlchildGirlchild, the debut novel of Tupelo Hassman ’06SOA, trots out all the unsavory characters you’d expect from a story that takes place in a trailer park: single-mom bartenders, absentee fathers, snobby girls from the right side of the tracks, sexual predators, and gambling grandmothers. Then there are those damaged by them, including the title character and narrator of the story, one Rory Dawn Hendrix. But in Hassman’s calm voice, these characters are rendered eerily complex, and the expected is turned on its head, making for a blisteringly beautiful narrative.

A young girl living with her mother “just north of Reno and just south of nowhere,” Rory Dawn understands the world in ways no schoolchild should. Her voice rings so clearly in our ears that it is a shock to learn, halfway through the book, that she hasn’t said a word aloud for months, a traumatic response to the sexual abuse she experiences at the hands of her babysitters. A mix between the bootstrapping Mary Call from Vera and Bill Cleaver’s young-adult novel Where the Lilies Bloom and the scrappy, intellectual child of Janisse Ray’s memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Rory Dawn is both the wisest and the most feeble-minded character in the book.

“I can hear all I want about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll on the playground,” she says, so it makes sense that she is drawn to the Girl Scout Handbook, where she finds “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 reader intuits that Rory Dawn will likely never own a new book, but we keep reading in the hope that she may one day pack a suitcase — or even a brown paper bag — if it means she might be getting out of the trailer park.

The first time we see the Girl Scout Handbook, Rory Dawn is using it as a prop as she spies on a cute neighbor boy. The book wasn’t always hers, she confesses: “At first, I borrowed it from the Roscoe Elementary School library, borrowed it over and over again until my name filled up both sides of the card and Mrs. Reddick put it in the ten-cent bin and made sure to let me know that she did.” This is not the last kindness Mrs. Reddick bestows on Rory Dawn; the librarian haunts the periphery of the book as one of the few adults in Rory Dawn’s world who neither abuses nor demoralizes her, even going so far as to chastise another teacher who offers her a backhanded gift of a pair of nude pantyhose before a spelling bee. Rory Dawn studies for the bee in the safety of the stacks, one of the only places she finds peace in her hardened world.

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