I’ve recommended Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild to three different people for three completely different reasons. One was a classmate interested in exploring mother-daughter dynamics in her fiction; another wanted proof that poetry could function as prose. The other friend just wanted a great read, which — despite its mixed reviews on Goodreads (“It never allowed Rory to have a voice” is my most aggravating favorite) — Girlchild is definitely a good read, and doubly so if you’re studying craft.
In Girlchild, Hassman takes a handful of devastatingly big themes — alcoholism, abuse, socioeconomic struggles — and fractures them into a series of smaller parts. I wouldn’t even wholly call them chapters; some sections feel like prose poems, and others feel like mixed media selections that build and move toward their devastating conclusion. I’ve read it twice now — once for pleasure, and once to focus on the methods through which Hassman achieves her goals. One of the biggest things I’ve pulled from the story is actually one of the things people seem to complain about most frequently online — it’s a nonlinear story, and the glimpses we are given pay very little service to the reader. No, this isn’t a bad thing.
Hassman’s style toes the line between stark beauty and youthful fragility, and she does it while vividly building the Calle, a town located just outside of Reno, NV. We follow the titular girlchild, Rory Dawn, in different moments of her life. The larger story follows her turbulent childhood, but subplots detail her burgeoning friendship with a real Girl Scout, the history of her mother’s struggles, and the rugged rules of life in the Calle. The best way to describe the way these plots are presented is some combination of the words scattered, brief, and gut-kicking. And yes, sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why we need to read a chapter of notes from the social worker studying Rory’s home life, or why we need to read snippets of the letters Rory’s grandma sends to her — but I think this is one of the beauties of the book.
This story cares about Rory, and the portions of her life that matter to her. Information is withheld and misplaced and misrepresented because it is filtered through Rory’s character and the way she moves through the world in different portions of her life — and that commitment is powerful. Hassman intentionally does not hold the reader’s hand (nobody holds Rory’s hand, either). This isn’t the reader’s story — it’s Rory’s.
One chapter is almost entirely blacked out, like a page full of redacted information noted only by its title, “flicker,” and singular lines that cue the reader into the horror of what lies behind the page’s blackness. One page in this chapter is almost entirely black, save for a single line toward the bottom: “opening my fist is telling,” and the line’s lost presence on the bottom of the page packs as much punch as any bit of blackout poetry because, at that point in the story, we know the character saying that line and we know the difficulties she is going through. It’s rough. And it’s huge.
Early in the book — regarding the way Rory’s grandmother marks up her letters — our narrator says, “Mother. That’s what all Grandma’s underlines and exclamation points are for, to try to make me believe a thing I know she lost faith in a long time ago, as if extra ink can make up for using the wrong words in the first place, can turn a lie into the truth or blot out all the mistakes a Hendrix ever made in caring for her children and letting them go.” And suddenly, any correspondence we read from Rory’s grandmother changes; now, it’s almost as if her writings are an act of penance, apologizing for her faults and the faults of Rory’s mother, hidden behind upbeat ramblings and many punctuation marks. This changes things, and it brings greater emotion to the letters we’ve read and continue to read in the book — a change that comes directly from what Rory is willing to share with the reader. The letters suddenly feel even more important to her because she is aware the purpose they’re trying to serve — and suddenly, they carry more depth.
I feel like one of the concerns that pops up in a lot of writerly minds is this: “Will anyone understand what I’m saying?” It’s a legitimate concern, and it’s tied into the vulnerability of putting everything you know and feel for a character and his or her world out in the open. It’s also partially tied to the idea of marketability, and whether you need to write for the reader, or write with the reader in mind. While I do believe that writers need to at least consider who their ideal audience might be, a novel like Girlchild showcases the power of ignoring that concern. All of the book’s 289 pages revolve around Rory, because she is the person who matters in the story; this is her life, not the reader’s, and the methods Hassman uses to reveal snippets of her life serve, in my mind, to take Rory’s life to greater depths.
Goodreads reviews be damned. Read Girlchild. It’s worth your time.