Corn-filled landscapes and icy Indiana winters come alive in Elizabeth Stuckey-French's debut story collection, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa. In each of the book's 12 stories, Stuckey-French skillfully blends landscape and narrative to create a vivid picture of the Midwest and its inhabitants. At the same time, she applies a subtle feminist light to troubled women's (and a few men's) lives.
THE FIRST PAPER GIRL IN RED OAK, IOWA
by Elizabeth Stuckey-French (Doubleday, $29.95)
The Midwesterners who populate Stuckey-French's tales come across as quirky and distinct at first, but in the end they lack believability. The title story, "The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa," follows Cherry and her two kids on a road trip to meet their dad at a convention. Along the way, Cherry falls for an asshole stranger while her daughter, boiling over with Girl Power, disapproves. Eventually, we're given a somewhat vague message about the socialization of women from independent girlhood to male-dependent womanhood. The result? An enjoyable, moving read that nevertheless fails to break new ground.
When Stuckey-French does explore new territory, she introduces characters whose actions never really make sense. Nonetheless, the author excels in telling stories from a young woman's perspective. In "Junior," the strongest story of the bunch, a troubled teenage girl tries to drown a child in a public pool. Sophie, the protagonist, isn't supposed to be a psycho, but instead wants to distinguish herself from her older sister, a pool lifeguard by day and a housewife-like servant for their lazy single father by night. "I had become a delinquent because I did not intend to take my turn as Daddy's nursemaid," Sophie declares, to explain her assault. While the drama of this resistance makes for a better story, Sophie's shockingly violent way of crying for attention is pretty far-fetched. (I don't think Betty Friedan would advocate her strategy, either.)
Other stories move beyond young women, with mixed success. In "Scavenger Hunt," a woman tracks down her long-lost adult son, dodging the advances of warty men along the way. One of those People magazine photos of unusual small-town phenomena seems to have inspired "Leufredus," which features Katie and her stepdaughter Tippy as just two more pregnant women in an Indiana county's amazing baby boom. In "Electric Wizard," a teacher fends off the demanding parents of a teenager who has just killed himself. The final story, "The Visible Man," describes a spontaneous lunchtime s顮ce between an elderly woman and the woman who once employed her as a maid.
Stuckey-French's grasp on Midwestern tone and subtlety rarely falters, and she can adopt the voice of a teenage girl like nobody's business. Unfortunately, many of her images and stories fail to get off the ground.