In a sparkling debut, Karen Lee Boren offers an exquisitely rendered coming of age story about adolescent girls in small-town Wisconsin who learn that life’s real perils exist where they never imagined: in their own neighborhoods and homes. During a single summer in the 1970s, five friends while away the hours by torturing the Avon lady, playing four square, jumping rope, swimming, and perfecting the art of sneaking out for night runs to the lake. Then one night the unthinkable happens, forcing the girls into a world beyond childhood and the pull of young friendship.
“The dreamy plural voice that tells this story evokes, perfect pitch, the collective comingled self of American female adolescence. In suburban summer boredom, Boren’s girls endear and endanger themselves, playing games with deadly consequences.”
—Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble
“In the vein of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides, here’s a coming-of-age story with a little extra—a feel for the innocent omniscience of children, a stealing sense of dread, and (not least) a mysterious, fetishized third thumb. Boren’s tale glows with the luminous hyperreality of nostalgia, without the rosy sentimentality that usually entails.”
—Peter Ho Davies, author of Equal Love
“Karen Lee Boren’s novella beautifully differentiates itself by taking us inside that little-known tribe we call girlhood. Who can resist the restless energy, the strength, and the wholeness of these hard-worked midwestern daughters before they individuate into women in this perilous world? Not this reader. I love these girls.”
—Cathleen Calbert, author of Bad Judgment
“The collective voice that drives Karen Lee Boren’s first novel is rapturous and steely-eyed at once, and this book beautifully captures the gestures and sensations—huge, tiny, exquisite, and excruciating—of her girls in peril. One is left elated by the power of this story, and marveling at Boren’s skill.”
—Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land
"Set during the 1970s in a neighborhood of eastern Europeans near the shores of Lake Michigan, this crisp, self-assured tale of five girls, ranging in age from 11 to 13, is told collectively, in the first-person plural, and centers on the group's athletic ringleader, Jeanne Macek. The only daughter of 12 siblings, Jeanne possesses an extra, baby thumb on one hand that, rather than being an object of scorn, holds talismanic power for the group. Spying on the ripe, perfumed Mrs. Sobczyk as she makes her Avon lady rounds, or witnessing the sexual wrestling of Jeanne's dreamy older brother, Joey, and his lovely girlfriend up the street, they are fascinated and repelled. Then Jeanne’s parents trick her into going away; on her return, the spell of childhood vanishes: Jeanne is pressed increasingly into household chores, and one of the girls, Lauren Jankowski, awakens sexually and challenges Jeanne's authority. Although it lacks the elegance of Jeffrey Eugenides’s similar debut, The Virgin Suicides, Boren hits her mark."
The fact was no one loved her little thumb more than Jeanne herself. She fashioned tiny outfits for it—miniature hula skirts made from carefully beaded lawn clippings, maple leaf ponchos, and hollowed-out crab apple hats. One time she inked dark eyes and a black hank of hair. Then with the rest of her hand balled into a fist, she danced her little gypsy over the tops of boxes and stairs, accompanied by songs blaring from Corinne’s transistor radio: “Dark Lady” and “Hoochie Koo.”
It was a showgirl, that thumb, a tart, and its very superfluousness made us love it. It would never lift a finger in work. Both it and the bent thumb lessened Jeanne’s workload considerably. In summer we were the extra hands around the house, made useful by our parents, whose watchful eyes darted everywhere at once, rending us from each other like sleeping puppies pulled from the litter. And it wasn’t just our own parents’ gazes we had to worry about. Any mother or father could interrupt our play and send us home for chores or dinner. They all felt free to chastise us for tossing stones against someone else’s garage door or bulleting a parked car’s hood with a tennis ball. And as if all the parents were in on it together, they ensured no girl went without a steady stream of summer jobs. We were forced to work in family stores, to clean out crawl spaces and garages, to mow lawns, and to learn to can fruit or crock pickles in case there was another real war and food was rationed.