Girlhoods of Difference

  • Robert Pepper-Smith
    House of Spells. NeWest Press
  • Lori Ann Bloomfield
    The Last River Child. Second Story Press
  • Kristen den Hartog
    And Me Among Them. Freehand Books
Reviewed by Margaret Steffler

Burdened by their identities as a giant, a bad omen, and a pregnant teenager, the central characters in these three novels yearn to belong to worlds that push them away through fear and ostracize them for difference. Ruth, daughter of James and Elspeth in Kristen den Hartog’s remarkable novel, And Me Among Them, towers clumsily above other children. Like the ample Hoda in Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot, Ruth is painfully eager to be one of the group, her desperate vulnerability cruelly exposed through her visibility and excessiveness. Ruth’s isolation is accentuated by her desire to share her point of view with other children as she imagines herself directing them—“Close an eye and encircle the open one with your thumb and finger, and through that lens you can see the fine details of your kneecap or your hand”—but she is never given the opportunity. Sensing something “primal” about herself and something “formal” about her parents, Ruth looks back in order to tell her story, which she acknowledges is just one “version”; she knows it is not up to her “to decide the absolute truth of things, or why the truth might not be my truth.” Den Hartog’s novel is powerful and evocative.

I was entirely taken by Ruth’s first-person narration with its complicated shifts to third-person omniscience incorporating James’ and Elspeth’s lives and thoughts. The grotesqueness of Ruth’s difference, resulting in taunts such as “Horse Face” and “Monster Girl,” effectively conveys the intensity of less extreme causes and cases of girlhood exclusion and alienation. Focused on the size, shape, and proportion of the girl’s body, the measurement of difference in the case of Ruth is an exaggeration of familiar requirements of “normalcy” for growing girls. The presence of Elspeth’s dressmaker’s dummy, which can be wheeled from room to room, serves as an ever-present reminder of the norm and goal of female growth and development. The inclusion of the physical, historical, and mythological origins and stories of “giants” not only contextualizes Ruth’s story, but also pushes readers to research the “authenticity” of the many versions offered. Exposed to actual and imaginary giants, the reader is told that “there is an uncanny resemblance between real giants and giants in fairy tales.” Den Hartog’s great success lies in her convincing and deft interweaving of the two.

Lori Ann Bloomfield’s first novel, The Last River Child, explores Peg Staynor’s exclusion and isolation. Set primarily during the early years of the twentieth century, the narrative reaches back to the childhood of Peg’s mother, Rose, who, like her daughter, was shunned by a close-knit community. Peg is suspected of being a river child, capable of releasing the treacherous spirit-child trapped within the Magurvey River. Feared and derided by the people of Walvern, Peg, like Ruth in And Me Among Them, anticipates school as a place of promise that will embrace her. School disappoints, however, allowing Peg to “pretend she belonged” while inside at her desk, but marking her as an outcast “during those long, jarring moments of recess” when “she stood apart.” Like Ruth, Peg tries to be unobtrusive, in her case doing “her best to appear harmless” since she is associated with treachery. Her affinity with the landscape defines her as uncanny, which increases others’ distrust of her. Unfortunately, the novel becomes unwieldy as it attempts to develop a number of characters and subplots initiated by the impact of the First World War on Walvern. The conventional narration of forty-seven chapters does not succeed in successfully containing or conveying the sprawling story, despite the compelling characters who enter and exit the narrative.

House of Spells by Robert Pepper-Smith explores the isolation caused by pregnancy, along with the complication of the baby being adopted within a small community, a situation that also occurs in The Last River Child. The novel explores narrator Lacey Wells’ friendship with Rose, whose pregnancy leads Lacey to discover the source of Mr. Giacomo’s wealth, which has been a local mystery in their town in southeastern British Columbia. Remembered and told by Lacey from a fire lookout in BC’s Palliser Mountains, the story is closely connected with the terrain and history of the region. References to a dam flooding a local valley and the activity of horse loggers focus the narrative on the land as it has been used and misused by those who inhabit it. After the novel ends, events will take Lacey away from southeastern British Columbia to Guatemala City, broadening the view and the story as seen from the fire lookout. Pepper-Smith’s novel is both a haunting mystery and an intimate exploration of loss, friendship, and family. In addition, sensuous descriptions concentrate on paper and the process of paper-making undertaken by Lacey’s father, who sold it to Japanese-Canadians in nearby internment caps during World War II. He now sells the snow-bleached or sun-bleached sheets to artists in Baltimore and New York. When Lacey buries the paper in the powder snow of the Illecillewaet snowfields, she notes “the light filtering through ice crystals bleached the paper” so that “it acquired a pure, enduring whiteness that made it rare and valuable.” When Lacey asks her father why he does not wear gloves while working, he responds that it is “because the strands are like new skin—they needed to be touched, caressed, to make them receptive, sensitive. In this way, he said, the paper will acquire stability, coherence.”

Like the narratives about giants in And Me Among Them, the descriptions of paper and paper-making in House of Spells engage the reader intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically. Both of these novels succeed in conveying the isolation, fear, and vulnerability of a girl who is different. Pepper-Smith places his character in the region that produced her difference whereas Den Hartog’s “giant” fills the novel and becomes larger than the region she inhabits.

This review “Girlhoods of Difference” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 154-55.

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