October 2006

Melissa Albert

fiction

Girls in Peril by Karen Lee Boren

There’s something unsettling about the dog days of suburban summertime. The air is oppressive with boredom and heat. The days stack up, long and identical. Doors are left unlocked. And in a quiet suburb along Lake Michigan, the setting of Girls in Peril, it’s too hot to sleep.

The five preteen girls of Karen Lee Boren’s novella shun sleep. The set, “ranging in age from eleven to thirteen,” move through their summer as one thing, sneaking to the beach at night, playing four square, burning their limbs to terra cotta on their suburb’s sidewalk.

The book follows the girls through that dangerous summer, the one that straddles the divide between baby fat and breasts, between innocence and sudden, innate knowledge. At summer’s start they’re like puppies, their bodies utilitarian and solid. But as the months wear on, their cheekbones hollow and their hipbones stretch, as their parts begin to outgrow the rest of them.

The leader of this group is Jeanne Macek, the only girl in a family of ten kids. She’s also the owner of a strange piece of anatomy: a beloved third thumb. Protruding from the base of her “real” thumb, this superfluous flap of skin -- kept soft by nightly applications of Vaseline -- is Jeanne’s glory and her good luck charm. The other girls adore the thumb. They don’t find it strange when Jeanne paints a face on it, wraps it in a hula skirt, and makes it dance to “Hoochie Koo.” In fact, they love her more for it, “court(ing) Jeanne’s favor for a chance to pet its tender skin.”

But Jeanne and the extra digit are soon parted, thanks to parents who find it less cute for a kid to lick, suck, kiss and dress her own thumb. This loss, and the sharp downhill turn Jeanne’s life takes afterward, weaves through the larger, lazier narrative of the other four girls and their too-long summer.

Without Jeanne to guide them, a thin line of dread runs through the season’s sticky aimlessness. They wake to a slow consciousness of the dangers of boys. They play chicken with a rusty knife. Their boredom unfolds into a kind of waiting, for the ultimate thing, for a violent neighborhood tragedy and its small, sad aftermath. 

At the center of this incident, and a peripheral witness to the girls’ bloom, is Joey. Jeanne’s older brother; Joey of the guitar, the arrest record, the coffee mug emblazoned “Flaming Youth”:

With his shoulder-length, feathered hair and deeply tanned skin, he was a disconcerting figure. He was a sort of mythical beast, half adult, half kid. His eyes lingering on our bodies made us tumble into cartwheels or explode into crazy dances that would make him shake his head and look away, both relieving and disappointing us.

He might be the cute, older love interest of a different, halcyon summer, but in this book he’s strung out and strange. Like Jeanne, his sadness is bigger than they can grasp, and it’s instrumental in the girls’ speedy maturation.

The gaggle of girls speaks as one, through a nebulous “we” narrator. This voice, preternaturally wise, doesn’t seem to represent them. Though they’re given names, and put into vague categories (the scaredy-cat, the musical one, Jailbait), they’re too briefly sketched to be interesting. The story veers unevenly between reliance on banal indicators of American girlhood (toenail polish, chores, soda pop), and on specifics. The girls’ individual selves, emerging from this mix, only serve to sever the unwise kids from the feeling consciousness of the narrator. The book’s voice can be more comfortably read as a sixth, omniscient character.

Considering Boren’s subject and her use of a group narrator, a parallel can be found between Girls in Peril and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. In that book, a group of similarly haunted neighborhood boys watched the decay of the Lisbon sisters, stifled beauties who lived on their block. But the boys stood to the side, allowing the sisters to command the story. Had Boren (and the novella’s abbreviated form) allowed Jeanne and Joey that kind of fullness, they may have become people whose fate the reader cares about. As it is, Girls in Peril contains a host of heartbreaking moments and bright images, but lacks the glue of a sympathetic nexus to hold it together.

Girls in Peril by Karen Lee Boren
Tin House Books
ISBN: 0977312720
150 pages