Cher singing “Half-Breed”; hot rollers; Tab; “Laura” (from General Hospital); shag carpeting; ponchos; daredevil Evel Knievel; bank robber Patty Hearst: That’s right, the 1970s — and writer Darcey Steinke grew up during them. A young teenager named Jesse grows up during them in Sister Golden Hair (Tin House Books), the new novel from Steinke, who lives today in New York but who once served as writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi.
“It wasn’t only clothes that I had to worry about. I also had to follow the accessory trends,” Jesse says with the accuracy of a social scientist. “Since I’d begun paying attention, there’d been a plastic belt fad, a color barrette fad, and a toe ring fad. These fads could not be dismissed and not only did you have to participate in them, you also had to be at the right place inside the fad, not the trailblazer who first showed up in jeans with teardrop pockets or striped toe socks, but around the fifteenth or twentieth. If you waited, you could be made fun of for jumping on the bandwagon. Then the items might actually hurt you instead of helping your status.”
Status: Jesse’s despairing mother — a largely absent but desperate presence throughout the novel — obsesses over it. Jesse is forced to come to terms with it because of a seventh-grade trend-setter named Shelia, who dresses like Julie from The Mod Squad, and a friend named Jill, a sexual adventuress whose mother goes missing, then Jill goes missing. Rumors at school are that Jill ran away with a pot dealer, or was kidnapped by bikers and taken to Mexico, or drowned in Tilden Lake, where, according to legend, a dead girl lives in an underwater cave made of amethyst. By late junior high, though, Shelia’s finally a friend of Jesse’s too, if your idea of friendship includes sexual humiliation, locking Jesse inside a clothes closet, and teaching Jesse the art of cocktail-waitressing Playboy Bunny style.
“Girl types” (according to Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue): Jesse’s learning here too: Natural, Hippie, Disco, and Preppy. She’s learning from Sandy, the sun-bathing, potty-mouth adult neighbor with serious man problems, and from Julie, the alcoholic neighbor (and former Miss North Carolina) who owns the High Style Dance Academy. Jesse’s learning to rid her 12-year-old mind of magical forest creatures and live, if possible, inside her own skin and accept the sight of her own changing body. She also wonders throughout Sister Golden Hair about God’s presence in the world. Or is He hidden from the world? Or maybe somewhere in between?
“Between me and everything there was a space, like an enormous canyon I could never hope to bridge or cross. It was like I was dead. A ghost girl didn’t need to worry about being popular, and it didn’t matter if she was sitting beside the freakiest girl in the whole school.”
That freaky girl is Pam, who is wise beyond her years because she’s had to be.
Jesse’s health-class topic at Cave Spring High is on shampoo buildup. Pam, who was supposed to discuss highlighting your hair with lemon juice, instead demonstrates her makeup routine to hide a purple-red birthmark that would mortify most girls. But during Pam’s talk, a space seems to open up for Jesse again — a space that is “rawer and realer” and free of the things that had worried her before and free of the faith she thought could sustain her. So that by the time Jesse is asked to participate in Jill’s baptism — yes, Jill’s — Jesse wants to shout no to the minister’s question: “Do you give yourself completely to the Lord?”
“Say you want yourself all for your own self. Say that you have no specific country, say that you are important without any story from above, say that your home is with me and the other girls up in the sky,” Jesse wants to say to Jill as she watches Jill go under, her hair free and floating, her robe soaked and outlining her girl body, like those girls who captivated Jesse in the pages of Vogue, their hair free and floating too, clothes clinging, and like perhaps the hair and clothing of that dead girl who lives at the bottom of Tilden Lake.
Sister Golden Hair, even without an overarching narrative — Steinke has said she sees the story in “phases” — captivates too in its strange mixture of the mundane and the fantastical, the pop-cultural and the metaphysical, and it’s very much in the mode of Steinke’s earlier, memorable novel Jesus Saves, the root question in both novels being: Does He? The God question being: Where is He? •
Darcey Steinke will be reading from and signing Sister Golden Hair at Burke’s Book Store (936 S. Cooper; 278-7484) on Thursday, October 16th, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. The reading starts at 6 p.m.