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Sister Golden Hair, Darcey Steinke, Tin House Books, 2014, 333 pp
The story in this novel falls outside the mainstream usual narrative we get in popular fiction about the lives of girls. While I find much to enjoy in some of the popular fiction I read, I don't often find myself, so I tend to gravitate towards a book like Sister Golden Hair.
In 1972, Jesse is 12 years old when her family moves to Roanoke, Virginia. Her father had been a Methodist minister who was an early adopter of long hair, folk music played in the church service, Gestalt workshops for parishioners, and Vietnam protests. He even "married" a gay couple. After the clergy trial, he was defrocked and began moving his family once a year as he studied history, science and psychology, while holding down semi-menial jobs. The family was told they would figure out their own relationship to God.
Jesse misses her formerly close relationship to both her dad and God. When no new understanding is forthcoming, she turns to neighbors and school friends in their downscale Roanoke neighborhood for clues. Since that is what most adolescents do anyway, the novel is a microcosm of both a decade in American life and of the ways some of us go outside our family narrative as teens.
You fear for Jesse because she is so innocent. She goes through experiences no mother wants her teenage daughter to go through. The parental units are not actually paying much attention and by the end of the novel, I wondered if that might not have worked out in her favor. She had a freedom of sorts but she also did have a home to go back to every evening; clothing, food and shelter were provided. While her mother was focused on finding her dream house, her dad came and found Jesse both times she ran away.
Many of my friends and I had a much closer watch kept on us in high school and had to venture into the unknown after we were away at college or married or working. Who's to say which is worse, which is better. In the end, Jesse follows her best friend but she is still only 16. You are left to contemplate how that is going to work out for her.
Darcey Steinke was raised with religion and as far as I can tell has spent her writing career working out the areas where religion meets the so-called real world. Sister Golden Hair is her latest novel and I want to read her earlier books. Some of them look even more gritty than this one but I think she is on to something, as were a few other of my admired female authors: Simone de Beauvoir, Mary McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, etc. She seems to be the literary descendant of those women. Religion, women, and middle-class white society are a potent brew of belief, confusion, disruption and a life-long search for what it is all supposed to mean.
I loved Jesse with ferocity. I read her story in one feverish hot summer day. It was my seventh female authored book in a row in July. I felt like I had been to a special summer camp.