{calle country}

One of my college friends suggested Girlchild, Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, to me with the added note: “THIS BOOK IS EXTREMELY EMOTIONALLY POWERFUL.” Clearly, I went out and got it immediately. (Also, this is one of three book recommendations I have received recently with a similar warning. What does this say about me? Do I require emotional instability? Or do my friends just think I do? Things to ponder.)

(Much like what my friend also said, “I’m not going to get all English major up in here,” namely because I think I’ve forgotten how. Two years after grad is quite long enough to forget anything I ever knew about sounding smart.)

Rory Dawn Hendrix is a third-generation resident of the Calle, a trailer park in 1970s Reno, Nevada. She keeps her head down at school, receives toilet paper roses from the regulars at the local bar where her mom works, and has a tattered copy of the Girl Scout Handbook that she regularly consults. Most of her life is no different from those of other Calle girls or her female relatives before her: She spends her nights waiting for her mom to come home (and then usually has to put her to bed). She writes letters to her grandmother, rarely sees her four grown brothers, and barely remembers her father. She’s terrified of the Hardware Man who babysits her—but is more terrified to tell anyone why.

Despite these similarities, her mother and grandmother have identified Rory as having the possibility to move beyond her ancestry, to escape becoming a “third-generation bastard surely on the road to whoredom.” If she follows their advice, if she wins the school spelling bee, if she stays away from the bar regulars, she’ll have a chance to be different, even though that means leaving her family behind.

I may not have been born the captain of this boat, but I was born to rock it.

I’d obviously have to agree with my friend that this book was emotionally powerful. What really compelled me, though, were the chapters that had little to do with Rory’s personal life, but instead covered the Calle culture, such as hierarchy, gender roles, family life, and coming of age. Most books center around a main character, and so their story is individualized and isolated to a certain extent. What gets really interesting, I think, is when these trends are applied to an entire community. The 1970s were not that long ago; Reno, Nevada, is not too far away. And yet the lifestyle in this book was so completely alien from anything I’ve ever experienced that I (a history minor and period-fiction specialist) struggled to remind myself of its relative immediacy. I’ve certainly come across this phenomenon elsewhere, but rarely so extreme. At the moment, the only equivalent work I can think of is The Slaughter Rule, an early Ryan Gosling film about a community football team in contemporary rural Montana. After 112 minutes of bleak Montana winters, it was as hard to snap myself out of it as it was for me to understand that I was watching a current reality.

Does anyone else have any examples of this? (I’ll accept answers with or without emotional caveats.)

2 responses

  1. I absolutely agree with you about the book’s cultural background being the most compelling part. I really enjoyed reading the unspoken rules of the Calle that all of the residents know to follow, for better or worse, and reading this was particularly engrossing because the subject was was so far removed from anything I’ve personally experienced. I love books like that! They always seem to suck you in so much more than books that are more overtly relatable to you, because they develop a very particular sense of style and place, and the characters have their own particular lexicon. I was actually disappointed by the ending. Not sure what I was expecting, since the focus of the book isn’t necessarily plot-driven. But for the most part I was impressed with this, especially as a debut novel. I’m so thrilled you did a review! Now I need to watch The Slaughter Rule.

    • Do it! I’m actually a little angry at myself for talking about it here… I went into watching it knowing literally nothing about it and was kind of blindsided, which was actually cool! I agree with you re: ending of Girlchild, by the way. I realized I didn’t touch on it here – but you’re right, the book is driven by so many things other than plot that it just didn’t occur to me to mention it.

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