RORY HENDRIX GROWS UP in a trailer park, the “Calle de las Flores,” north of Reno. She is 5 years old when the novel opens, and has just moved with her mother from Santa Cruz, away from her no-count father and four teenage brothers. Her mother is a bartender at the Truck Stop and she drinks too much. Who wouldn’t? Rory is left too often with her 13-year-old babysitter. While in Carol’s questionable care, Rory is terrifyingly sexually abused by the Hardware Man, who threatens to hurt her if she tells. Girlchild is told in many voices: Rory’s diary entries, social worker notes, letters, arrest records, Supreme Court opinions, and other memorabilia. They reveal Rory’s fears and also her sources of strength — her grandmother and the “Girl Scout Handbook,” from which she learns about health, safety, duty, “The Right Use of Your Body,” and other luxuries. In the diary entries that describe the Hardware Man’s abuse, the lines are blacked out.
Hassman captures the imagination as a place where children flee. Rory sees things in a glare:
The spiral-eyed children fall away as the Ice Cream Man pushes two drumsticks through the canopy of candy and lights. His face shines red and green, is so slick I can’t tell the difference between sweat and tears.
Rory will remind readers of other hard-luck heroines: Linda in Terrence Malick’s movie, Days of Heaven, Olive in Little Miss Sunshine, Bo in Off the Map (also a girl scout at the margins). These girls, with everything working against them, clawing them down, rise up, are dignified, tough, and beautiful.