This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo

I found out about this book from the Wake County Library's "Book-A-Day" Staff Picks". I was 40 pages into Hitlerland, which is, BTW, actually a really good book, but I think one week and 40 pages was showing that I was done with Nazi Germany for awhile. I'll have to pick that back up when I'm ready to learn more about history...

The books I'm actually ready to read are not ready for me at the library so I decided to see how this one would fare. It sounded interesting but not 'gotta-read-it-now!' interesting. Boy, was I wrong. I read this in two days. I could NOT put it down. Saturday, well, actually, Sunday morning, I forced myself to put it away at 2:15 AM because I was barely halfway through the book. There was no way I could finish it (well, I _could_ but I did have to put in some sleepy time)...

Reading In The Garden of the Beasts was like reading a fictional novel, yet it was non-fiction. Reading The Talk-Funny Girl was the opposite: it was like reading an autobiography. I have found another wonderful writer in Roland Merullo. And what is more amazing is that the protagonist of this story is a 17 year old girl, Marjorie Richards - Majie (May-gee), as her parents call her, or Laney, as she asks to be called.

The setting is rural New Hampshire. Laney lives a rough life with her mom and dad, both who don't work. Dad is 'disabled' - Laney knows it's a lie - and waits for his disability check to come in so that they can spend it on a little bit of food, then he and 'ma' goes off without a trace, leaving Laney home alone. At 17, not a big deal but they've been doing it for most of her life.

But Laney's Aunt Elaine usually comes to stay with her when mom and dad go off to nowhere. Aunt Elaine is Laney's mom's step-sister. She tries to reach out to Laney, to rescue her from this sad existence. But Laney is trapped in her own world and refuses to leave, throughout her years.

But mom and dad tell Laney, at 17, she needs to start earning money and finding a job. She needs to quit school (they were forced to send her to school, as she was not going until the state found out when she was nine years old) and just work and bring them money. Laney likes school. She likes to learn and she's pretty good at it. And it's a way to be away from her home life. Her parents, especially her mom, treats her badly. They abuse her: douse her - dragging her by her hair, all the way to the pond, then throwing buckets of cold water on her, no matter the time of year; "boy" her - making her dress up as a boy and having her fix up things around the house, like the roof, a shed, etc.; "hunger" her - refuse to feed her. This, on top of the verbal abuse they throw on top of her.

School is her escape despite the fact that kids call her 'the talk-funny girl' because she speaks like her parents, in an uneducated dialect. The school administrators, while stating Laney is smart, can't understand why her language skills haven't progressed. But it's because Laney has chosen to continue to talk the way her parents do because it's better to endure the teasing and scrutiny of the school system and talk incorrectly than to endure the abuse of her parents by talking correctly. Here is an excerpt of a conversation with her parents about taking on a job as a stonemason. I've cut out the paragraphs and kept only the dialogue:

[Laney's dad] "What for the job, you Majie?"
[Laney]"I started on today."
"What for doing?"
[Laney's mom] "Smelling on stones? Feeling stones down between the legs? What, rubbing on stones for a genie coming out? You gotten three wishes, you Majie?"
[Laney]"Taking of old concrete at the dump. Putting the stones by a size."
[Laney's dad] "Where in?"
"Into the town."
"Where part of?"
[Laney] "Where was the church before. St. Mark's. The person has work to make another church at there now.
[Laney's mom] "Keep lie-making. And someone goin' to boy you."

Laney's job is working with Sands, who is a 24 year old man who loses his mom and dad and takes his inheritance to rebuild a burned out church in the nearby town to rebuild it into a cathedral. He hires Laney to be his apprentice and teaches her about stonesman-ship, among other things. He tries to build a bond, to break her out of the wall she's built for herself and slowly, we see that happen.

Laney is one of the most amazing characters I have read. I thought of Ree from Winter's Bone (the movie, as I have not read the book), as well as Katniss from The Hunger Games (amazingly enough, both played by Jennifer Lawrence. But if you have not seen Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence is much better in that one). She is smart and strong-willed, as well as physically strong. It's not easy to read the abuse that happens to her. There is a scene where we think she is about to get buoyed again but no, she in fact gets tied to a tree by her dad. And there are frustrating scenes where Sands and Aunt Elaine want to rescue her and she refuses to leave. Those are things I'm sure those of us fortunate enough not to live in an abusive relationship just won't understand.

I'm always amazed when a writer can write for the opposite sex. David Nicholls did that with One Day and now Merullo with Laney. When you can relate to the female character (I hate saying "character" because they feel like a person to me) *and* you happen to be female, it's mind-blowing to know that it was a man that wrote those words, those feelings.

I'd never heard of Merullo and yet, when I went through the comments at (one of my favorite sites; my daily reading site) for this book, I noticed that he had about a dozen books and that he was a favorite author by so many. He's on my list now. This book was AMAZING. His writing was incredible. And Majie/Laney/Marjorie is a _person_ I will soon not forget.

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