You'd think that by now, the news that Americans are spoiling their children would be as attention-getting as the fabled headline "Dog Bites Man," but, apparently, we never weary of hearing about how badly we're doing as parents. Last year, it was the Tiger Mom; this year, a hot new book called Bringing Up Bebe tells us that the French have us beat by an indifferent shrug when it comes to the art of raising independent kids. (I think red wine has something to do with it.) And, in business news of late, reports have sprung up about helicopter parents staging landings in their adult children's workplaces — even accompanying Junior and Missy on job interviews! — just to make sure the boss realizes what treasures are gracing the intern pool.
We lap up these mock horror tales of overinvolved parents because even though they may be critical, they're essentially comic: They're about parents who "love too much." But, of course, for every kid who's ever been smothered by parental concern, there have always been plenty in America and elsewhere who have been left to fend for themselves. One cold consolation these kids have is that their stories usually make for better literature.
Tupelo Hassman writes with such an eye for rough-and-tough detail, she obviously knows something about kids who have been given the dubious gift of premature autonomy. The narrator of her curious debut novel, Girlchild, is a trailer trash tyke named Rory Dawn Hendrix. Rory tells us her alcoholic mom, whom she idolizes, had four children by the time she was 19; Rory is her fifth. The pair live outside Reno, Nev., in a trailer paid for by Mom's jobs as a bartender, keno runner, and change girl at the casinos. Rory is left home alone a lot and, when she's not watching reruns of M*A*S*H or Family Ties or hiding from the boogeymen, real or imagined, banging on the trailer door, she's reading.
Like many a wise child before her, Rory finds consolation in books: her Bible of choice is a tattered old copy of The Girl Scout Handbook. The trailer park doesn't have a troop, but Rory constitutes a fearsome pack of one; she even awards herself her own homemade badges. Here, for instance, is one in a long list of Rory's requirements for the "proficiency badge [in] puberty":
Sleep with a bra on every night in fear of your boobs dropping should you forget. Intermediate: Don't wear a bra in the daytime. Advanced: Forget bras and wear the Here Comes Trouble T-shirt you got for your eighth birthday. Act offended if anyone stares at the new shape of the word Trouble ....
It's Rory's voice, as well as the offbeat ways in which she presents her coming-of-age story that make Girlchild so memorable. (In fact, the only false note in this debut novel is that corny title.) In flashbacks structured as bureaucratic transcripts from social workers, we hear about Rory's mom's disastrous relationship with her older children; other chapters here are about as long as a haiku, such as one entitled: "the first and the fifteenth" (which is when subsidy checks from the government arrive at the trailer park). That chapter, in total, reads:
"The movement from hand to mouth is at once isolated and distinct but also automatic, unvarying."
Rory is like a miniature Margaret Mead, observing and chronicling the life of the trailer park with an insider's knowledge and an anthropologist's detachment. In an opening moment of retrospection, Rory recalls the world of her childhood by describing its adult residents' tribal markings:
"Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed ... [Rory says]. I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. 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."
Rory endures sexual abuse, the death of loved ones, and everyday invisibility — all without playing for our sympathy. She's a resilient, if-ragged, life force in a desert landscape where you'd have a better chance of sighting a UFO than a helicopter parent. It's a testament to Hassman's assurance as a writer that, even though we readers have the option of leaving, we hunker down in that trailer park with Rory for the long dry season of her youth.