The Book We're Talking About This Week: 'Girlchild' By Tupelo Hassman

This is our new weekly series, The Book We're Talking About. At the start of each week, we'll tell you about a recent release that is getting a lot of attention - and help you understand why that's happening. We're also sending it out as a weekly email at the beginning of every week - subscribe via the "alerts" box in the top right of our section's homepage.

"Girlchild" by Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.00
Published on February 14, 2012

What is it about? "Girlchild" chronicles the adolescence of a girl (Rory Dawn Hendrix) growing up in a trailer park in Reno, Nevada circa early 1970s, from ages 5-16. The book is compiled of short diary-like entries, letters, excerpts from "The Girl Scout Handbook," and case worker files.

Rory struggles with her desire to be a normal, happy child (she longs to be a Girl Scout), despite suffering sexual abuse, having an alcoholic mother, an absent father, and living in a trailer park. Though she wants to escape the world she lives in, she is chained to it. She is determined to be the first of her family to escape poverty, teenage pregnancy, and addiction, but all the while she deals with a fair share of self-loathing and doubt.

Why are we talking about it? The book cover definitely stuck out when we received it. Then the blurb sucked us in.

On the main character: Rory Dawn is more mature than the adults who surround her. In many ways, she takes care of them. Despite all the obstacles that stand in her way, Rory remains perseverant. She refuses to give up her ideals because of her circumstances.

Who wrote it? Tupelo Hassman. This is her debut novel. She graduated from Columbia's MFA program and her writing has been published in the Portland Review Literary Journal, and Paper Street Press, among others.

Who will read it? Lovers of literary fiction and anyone who roots for the underdog. However, it is by no means a typical underdog story of success. We definitely wouldn't call it a "feel-good" novel. A word of warning: it does deal with some very sensitive, uncomfortable topics.

What's it similar to? A grownup version of Roald Dahl's "Matilda"
"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

What did the reviewers say?

New York Times: "Hassman avoids falling into stock characterization — the deprived but talented protagonist who overcomes great odds to achieve success — by emphasizing the gut-wrenching details of Rory’s childhood. Rory’s success is never guaranteed. In fact, as the novel progresses, it seems heartbreakingly unlikely."

Boston Globe: "'Girlchild,' Hassman’s debut novel, unfolds a compelling, layered narrative told by a protagonist with a voice so fresh, original, and funny you’ll be in awe. This novel rocks."

Publishers Weekly: "Despite a few jarring moments of moralizing, this debut possesses powerful writing and unflinching clarity."

Impress your friends: The first Girl Scout handbook was published in 1913 and originally titled "How Girls Can Help Their Country." In 1913, there was only one handbook. Now, there are five. The handbook has been published in Spanish, Japanese, German, and Braille.

Opening line: "Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed."

Closing line: "At twenty-five alligator a window bursts behind me, and I turn around just in time to see an ember escape the Nobility's core and rise up into the night air, shivering, bright and free."