Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
The Girl from Blind River
By Gale Massey
Crooked Lane Books
July 10, 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1683316404, Hardback 329 pages
Gale Massey’s The Girl from Blind River (Crooked Lane July 2018), is a tautly plotted, gripping novel with a lyrical quality in the language that lifts it far above the ordinary. This is a great read, a captivating story, and a purely stunning debut.
In the story, Massey introduces us to Jamie Elders, an unforgettable hardscrabble young woman and poker savant, whose brutal uncle forces her to help bury a dead man under a pile of rocks. Only Jamie’s gritty determination—and her poker skills—can help her dig her way out of the escalating dangers.
Jamie is born into a family of criminals who are also cursed with astonishingly bad luck. She is nineteen, stuck in a dying industrial town in Upstate New York, and living in a dank trailer with her coarse, violent uncle (ironically named Loyal) and her screw-up of a younger brother. She works as her uncle’s bagman, engages in an affair with an older married man, and has an iffy, angry relationship with her mother, who is just out of prison after an eight-year sentence. Jamie’s flunked out of college, and blew her chance at “the kind of dead-end job designed keep people from ever improving their lives.” Her one obvious talent is poker.
Yet, despite these grim negatives (or perhaps because of them), Jamie transcends being just another poor, trashy girl with no future and comes across as a sympathetic protagonist. Readers will root for Jamie even as the long odds stack higher against her.
In part, Jamie garners respect just because she’s managed to stay alive and out of jail, but also she is fiercely loyal and protective of her brother, Toby. As much as she strives to escape her dismal life, she won’t abandon Toby, the boy she raised after their mother went to prison. Jamie can see beyond his hapless bullying to what remains of the tender little brother crying at their father’s funeral, or collapsing outside their mother’s jail.
Realistic and without self-pity, Jamie plans to hang around in Blind River until Toby can take care of himself, then light out into the world and make her living playing poker. She’s not only gifted at the game, but her mother has taught her an impressive array of tricks, including how to cheat to win. In other words, she has ambition.
Ambitious or not, Jamie lives in a dangerous place. In her world, men are almost universally brutish. Her uncle hits her and her brother at will, though at least he does not sexually assault them. Even Jamie knows Jack, the married boyfriend, is not to be trusted, and the best she can say about him is that he can afford to buy condoms, unlike the boys back in high school. Ultimately both Jack and her uncle will betray her in different, but equally unforeseeable and unforgivable ways.
Only Carl Garcia, the police detective, surfaces as a man with some intrinsic kindness in his soul. Massey introduces him to the readers at a poker game at the home of an influential but corrupt judge. At that game, Garcia will bear witness to events that soon lead to the dead body Jamie is forced to help bury. Described as “looking just like a detective—mousy hair, dull eyes, faded plaid shirt—but fit and muscular like a cop with ambition,” Garcia makes an understated hero. Yet he will ultimately emerge as the one true, good male in the whole story.
One poignant scene has Garcia questioning Jamie as they stand outside near a freeway. A horse is tethered to a fence, near the highway, and each time an eighteen-wheeler goes past, the horse panics at the loud noise. Snared by its fear, the horse becomes entangled in ropes. Jamie asks why the horse doesn’t simply back up, and Garcia flashes back to a time he purchased a horse for his now-ex-wife. He explains to Jamie that horses don’t naturally walk backwards, but must be taught to backup. Through the quick flashback, Massey reveals something about Garcia, but she also evokes a sense of doom in which the readers can’t help but feel Jamie, like the tethered horse, is trapped because she can’t simply walk away.
Trapped as she is by poverty, Jamie’s early failed attempts to break free only land her in worse trouble. By using her uncle’s illegal funds in a misguided attempt to gain big bucks through gambling, she is pulled deeper into debt to him. He collects when he pulls her out of bed one night to help him move that dead body from the judge’s house. As Jamie stands outside the judge’s door, struggling not to throw up at the sight of the dead man, she glances up and sees her mother in the window of the judge’s bedroom. Now—like the tethered horse—she’s trapped not only by her debt to her uncle, but by a need to protect her mother from being thrown back into prison.
In this type of story, someone with less talent than Massey might have let Loyal and the others devolve into stereotype. But Massey is far too fine a writer for that. She gives each character something unique and intriguing that lifts him or her above stereotype. Even the brutish uncle has a tender side dating back to a high school friend and the nature of that friendship rips apart any notion that Loyal is a cliché.
Though Jamie is far from being a stereotype, she does emerge in the story as a kind of blended archetype of the plucky woman and the female survivor. Such a prototypical underprivileged, but plucky/scrappy-female-as-survivor character has deep roots in classic literature. Moll Flanders comes to mind, as does Jane Eyre, two poor girls who thought for themselves, took risks, and ventured out in the world on their own. And who could forget the plucky, determined Scarlet O’Hara, one of modern literature’s ultimate survivors. Though she did not begin life poor and disadvantaged, the Civil War certainly made her so.
Transformed through the ages with different times, settings, and plots, such strong female characters still give us much to cheer for and delight in their successes. Savvy readers know life is hard, but much harder yet for poor girl children born into poverty and crime. Knowing this, we want these girls and young women to overcome the odds because it gives us a kind of hope for all such endangered people.
In current popular literature, many notable and popular women of this archetype possess a gritty, even violent, edge. Frankly, some of these women are scary. For example, Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, andCelie in The Color Purple by Alice Walker all share disadvantaged beginnings, with the long odds against them offset by their remarkable cunning, skills, and gritty determination. And Ree Dolly, the tenacious young woman at the heart of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, intrigues us without the obvious talents of Lisbeth, Jamie, and Katniss, or the spirituality of Celie. It’s almost as if Ree functions on backbone and will power alone.
Inevitably, comparisons might be drawn between Jamie and Ree Dolly and Girl from Blind River and Winter’s Bone. Both books have what Woodrell called a “country noir” atmospheric sense of doom, desperation, and danger. Both Ree and Jamie are born into poverty and crime, and both have lost fathers. There’s something almost feral and certainly cunning about both Ree and Jamie. They are not so much plucky, as they are scrappy.
Yet, The Girl from Blind River is different in many ways from Winter’s Bone. For one thing, Ree’s mother is no help to her, but Jamie’s mother at least taught her to cheat successfully at poker, and buys her a bus ticket out of town. And, unlike Ree, Jamie has a distinct talent, poker, and she plans to use that talent to better her life.
Comparisons aside, Jamie and Girl from Blind River stand on their own as remarkable achievements in popular literature. Gale Massey has a poet’s eye for the telling detail, and can evoke a feeling with a few deftly written words. Readers don’t need to be told Jamie is poor after Massey has her searching “the remaining pizza boxes until she found a piece of crust and chewed it while she watched the [poker] hand play out.”
As Massey shows readers with her well-chosen observations, Jamie’s world is not pretty. “Weeds bent to the ground by morning frost sloped along the embankment to black ditches, thick with mud and smelling of the runoff from the fertilizer plant upstream.” Yet, even in this cold, ruined landscape, Massey finds a kind of beauty, however dim it weighs against Jamie’s dreams of going to Florida and eating oranges right off the tree. Consider this passage, simple, elegant, and telling:
Sunlight bent at the horizon and threw such light against the brick and clapboard buildings that Jamie had to stop for a moment and stare at her hometown. Moments like that made her wonder if she’d miss the place if she ever got out. But she figured sunsets were pretty everywhere and waited for the moment to pass.
That Gale Massey should author such a fine, compelling, and beautifully written book is no surprise, even if this is a debut novel. Massey, a Floridian, holds a Master’s Degree from Georgia State University, and her stories have appeared in numerous journals and publications. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships at the prestigious Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Writers in Paradise, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
While not a mystery per se, Girl from Blind River is certainly a book of suspense. In Massey’s talented hands, even the poker games have a suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat quality.
Do not miss reading this book!
About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro was raised on tales of errant, unhinged kith and kin, whiskey making, and the War Between the States. Inspired by such stories, she wanted to write fiction, but became a lawyer instead. An honors graduate of The University of Alabama Law School, she became the first female partner in a prestigious Sarasota, Florida law firm. After a decade of lawyering, Claire taught at Florida State University College of Law and spent one long, cold winter as a visiting legal writing professor at the University of Oregon. Her books are: Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine(2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley(2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow, and Trouble in Tallahassee (2018 KaliOka Press). Coming in Spring of 2019: Privilege (Moonshine Cove), a steamy legal thriller noir set on the Gulf coast of Florida. She recently finished polishing Wayward Girls–a manuscript she co-wrote with Dr. Penny Koepsel–and awaits the happy news when her agent, the great, fun, funny, and radically energetic Liza Fleissig, places it with the right publisher. Follow her at https://twitter.com/ClaireMatturro “Like” her at her author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/authorclairematturro/