Girls in Trouble

16 Sep
The Untold by Courtney Collins

The Untold by Courtney Collins

As frequently happens, to my great pleasure, I picked up a book of which I had no knowledge and within a paragraph or two I was fully transported. The most recent case of this was The Untold by Australian Courtney Collins that employs an unusual narrative device that lights the novel’s stage with a peculiar kind of light. It seems that a certain theme seems to capture my interest— especially in light of the current focus on domestic violence. In this case, Collins turns legendary Australian outlaw Jessie Hickman in to a fictional character.Set in early 20th century Australia, Jessie (she is a talented equestrian) is sold to a traveling circus at the age of twelve by her mother and ends up horse rustling which lands her in prison. She is “paroled” to a brutal man whom she endures, until she can’t. She kills him and in the process loses the child with which she is pregnant. Her journey to escape her pursuers and the character studies her two main pursuers drives this emotional resonant story set against the brutal and unforgiving Australian Outback.

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fiction set in rural Michigan is part of a wave of novels that represent what I term ‘American Grit’— a wider geography than what some people are calling ‘Grit Lit‘—Frank Bill, Don Ray Pollack, Philip Meyer’s American Rust, Smith Henderson and Katherine Faw Morris.

Grit Lit by Tom Franklin & Brian Carpenter

Grit Lit by Tom Franklin & Brian Carpenter

“Once Upon a River,” Campbell’s second novel, leaves off where her first “Q Road” began — prequeling the story of Margo Crane, who is 15 when the novel opens in the late 1970s. Nicknames Sprite, she is adept outdoorswoman—expert shot and oarswoman. And to her great misfortune she is a beauty —she has been raped by an uncle (retaliating with a just and unlikely rifle shot)and thereafter is pursued by sexually aggressive relatives and neighbors and by the law.Jane Smiley contests the rubric under which I place Campbell:

The damaged world she lives in remains an ecosystem in which animals and humans, field and stream, purity and pollution, love and hate are tightly interconnected. It would be too bad if, because of Campbell’s realistic style and ferocious attention to her setting, “Once Upon a River” were discounted as merely a fine example of American regionalism. It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Gil Adamson‘s award winning novel(in Canada)The Outlander is set in rural Canada, at the turn of the 20th century and features Mary a 19 year old widow, apparently “widowed by her own hand”. Her pursuit by her husband’s brutish twin brothers drives this narrative. And flight from them and her own roiling consciousness is a powerful story played out against a terrain that Adamson skillfully makes palpable with spot on olfactory cues.

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Iness Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Iness Brown

For the hell of it might I mention another on of my favorite novels Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown She and I have a chance to converse:

RB:… Is there a specific regional kind of writing that understands this locale, understands how to talk about it?

EIB: The thing that made me able to write this book was growing up in Upstate New York. I didn’t realize this until after the book was pretty much done. I grew up on the Canadian border in St. Lawrence County. Even though the island stuff is much more based on where I live now, the culture in this book comes just as much from that county. It’s the poorest county in New York state. There’s a lot of French Canadian influence there, a lot of native Americans. Like where I live now. A lot of that stuff which came to me intuitively as I was developing this story came from my own childhood and from growing up there. All this images and words — when I started writing this — before Marguerite had a name she was ‘tantee’. I was saying “tantay” in my mind, and I knew that wasn’t right. Finally during the revision process (that’s when I do all my research, after the fact) I contacted this woman who teaches at my college who focuses on French Canadians. I said, “Can you help me? I’m calling her “tant-ay” and that’s not right.” She said that French Canadians often say “tantee” they combine tante and auntie. And that’s where it came from. For me, it must have come from something I experienced as a child because I had no conscious memory of learning that. It must be something I had heard. I think a lot of it came from that experience. Whether or not somebody else could have written this book…I think it does have a specific regional quality. It’s really about that netherworld, where it’s not quite the United States and not quite Canada and there are a lot of people there and a lot of native Americans there and the culture has it’s own subtle but clear mix.

Currently reading Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures 1964 -2013 by Noam Chomsky (Haymarket Books)

One Response to “Girls in Trouble”


  1. Addendum To Girls in Trouble | ourmaninboston - September 17, 2014

    […] Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is being made into a movie with the inimitable Lucinda Williams writing music for it. […]

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