"By not talking anymore, Mercedes was being true to herself because her words were in the water with her momma and daddy and if she spoke she would be speaking words that weren't hers and she wasn't going to do that because she loved her momma and her momma had always told her to be true to herself. She loved her daddy too, which was why she walked down the hallway at school with her back as straight as could be ...because her daddy said how you carried yourself said a lot about how much pride you had. He said the more pride you had, the straighter you'd keep your back, so she tried to keep her back as straight as she could. She thought of her daddy standing in front of the griddle at the restaurant, his back perfectly straight, and her momma standing at the register; even though her hip hurt her when she stood she always got to her feet whenever the door opened."As the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded in the news and over social media, I, like everyone else, was flooded with emotion - overwhelmed, not only with sadness for the tragedy and the loss of innocent lives, but also by the intensity and volume of the response to it. Amid the noisy chaos of my twitter feed, one quiet tweet from writer Lou Freshwater stood out: "In us is this greatest paradox - Our fragility. Our resilience."
I'd been thinking about those poignant words when only days later, a story of another tragedy in Boston arrived, this one fictional. Douglas Trevor's novel Girls I Know (forthcoming May 7 from Six One Seven Books) tells the tale of Walt Steadman, a Harvard graduate student who has lost his direction and his momentum, and works as a super in an apartment building rather than writing his dissertation. Walt loves Boston, though he lives a spare and rather disconnected life there. His greatest pleasure and indulgence is his daily breakfast at the Early Bird Café in Jamaica Plain - he's come to love John and Natalie Bittles, the owners of the cafe, and Flora, an attractive waitress. Aside from Ginger Newton, a whirlwind of an undergrad newly subletting in Walt's apartment building, the people in the café are the closest to friends and family that he has in Boston. One morning - one of those now too familiar mornings like any other morning - in an act of gang-related violence, a gunman opens fire on them. Only Walt survives.
Ginger does what she can to help Walt, but she is absorbed with her own project - a book about philosophy, good, and evil based on interviews with women and girls from all walks of life. Walt, meanwhile, seeks out Mercedes Bittles, the young daughter of the restaurant owners, in the hope of finding some connection or meaning in the aftermath of their loss.
I was almost reluctant to begin reading, wondering if the novel would be too difficult given all that had just happened in our real world. Instead, I found that in its very thoughtful, compassionate exploration of violence, grief, recovery and strength, Girls I Know seemed exactly right for the moment. Walt's is the main voice and conscience of the novel - funny, kind, sincere, conflicted. Both his post-traumatic experience and his quest for greater purpose struck me as realistically complicated and very affecting. Ginger is a whoosh of energy and spontaneity and danger, and a good foil for Walt. Her wealth, though it is a little convenient to the story at times, also introduced conversation around income and privilege. I especially loved young Mercedes' voice - I found her expression of death as "water", the idea of being a "friend" of the quiet, and her interpretations of poetry to be beautiful and heartbreaking. Above all, I loved that this is no simple rescue story - no one character saves any other - instead together, very tentatively, the three begin to save themselves.
Poetry is Walt's greatest love, and the novel is also a poem for Boston, in a way. For those of us who have spent only brief periods of time there, it brings neighborhoods such as Cambridge, Watertown, and Jamaica Plain alive in our hearts and imaginations in ways the news media cannot. I found Girls I Know to be a very moving and hopeful novel, examining and embracing all that shatters within us, and all that gives us strength.
It is my pleasure to welcome author Douglas Trevor to the blog today - he kindly answered my questions about Girls I Know and shared some thoughts on Boston.
My thanks to the author and publisher for a complimentary review copy of Girls I Know.