AUGUST 30, 2016
IN HER INTRODUCTION to The Girls in My Town, author Angela Morales explains, “When I started writing these essays, each piece began with a single image that appeared distinctly in my mind: a bowling ball, a stack of school lunch trays, my father’s gun, a dying rat, a burrito, a lost dog, a pregnant teenager, my grandmother on her deathbed.”
What may initially seem like an assortment of random and incongruent objects and subjects that have little to no relation to one another ultimately forms an intricate bricolage of Morales’s life as a young Chicana growing up just outside Los Angeles. Through careful contemplation of these disparate personal artifacts and memories, Morales finds connections that ultimately lead to profound truths about the things we choose to recall and the impact these recollections have on our lives.
Things start out innocently enough; Morales offers up a rather idyllic glimpse into her childhood in the San Fernando Valley. Her parents’ appliance store, Raymor Electric, “[makes] them lots of money,” so much so that her mother and father “develop a manic, hungry angst that [leads] them, in a spontaneous fit of wanderlust, to places like car dealerships and jewelry stores.” It is during one of these outings that Angela’s father purchases for her and her sister Linda their first bowling balls. “So to escape [their] father and a life of appliances,” Morales and Linda begin frequenting the nearby San Gabriel Lanes. There, young Angela finds solace and acceptance and soon discovers she possesses an inherent knack for the game. She joins the Chief Little Feather League, led by “a real live Indian” decked out in a “dazzling feather headdress, a white-beaded leather jacket, and real moccasins,” and eventually she and her partner on the team take first place in their league. However, her obsession with bowling a perfect game fades and, as she moves into her junior high years, she grows disillusioned and withdrawn. Determined to expunge any connection to herself and her former passion, and as her mother begins to uncover evidence of her husband’s philandering, young Angela begins rebelling. One night, after chugging a bottle of her father’s brandy with two friends, the three girls wind up in the bowling alley. During a brief confrontation with another patron who yells at Morales and her friends, she comes to a greater understanding of the need people have for acceptance and belonging. “The world suddenly got much wider,” she explains. “I wished I could tell Debra and Jenny about this premonition I had that beyond the fog in which we stumbled, there lay something better: more friends, lovers, children, people who would see us, listen to us, love us, and that right there, in that bowling alley, I had glimpsed what this might mean.”
But it’s not just this youthful realization in the lanes that provides Morales with the kind of high-octane fuel necessary to create such narrative energy. In her skilled hands, through her lyrical prose, otherwise seemingly ordinary encounters take on richness and power. For example, in “One Small Step,” the author examines the effects of the women’s liberation movement on a young and impressionable Chicana when she and a friend protest the carefully demarcated gender policies around student volunteers in the school cafeteria. “What had we learned?” Morales asks. “Was school just meant to babysit us before we could grow up to then be mistreated by bosses and boyfriends and husbands?” In the end, young Angela comes to understand that some victories don’t produce the immediate catharsis we seek.
There are lighter selections as well, that move past the epic cultural shifts and family trauma, demonstrating the author’s ability to hit different emotional pitches. Take “The Burrito: A Brief History,” in which Morales gives us a new perspective on the ubiquitous Mexican staple; “An Elegy (and Apology) to Dogs I’ve Loved” serves as a eulogy for all the pets that died, escaped, or were simply abandoned. In “Nine Days of Ruth,” Morales channels a reflective style, ruminating on her grandmother’s life as the old woman lies on her death bed. And in “Riding in the Dark,” encounters with mountain lions, opossums, and other nocturnal creatures during predawn bike rides gives the reader a glimpse at the ways in which the writer finds strength in vulnerability. “What dream could be better than this?” Morales asks. “Anything you see at 5 a.m. has the qualities of the subconscious — both vivid and remote, real and unreal.”
It’s Morales’s ability to explore the complexities that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly mundane, her patient and unflinching handling of her story, and her drive to expose larger truths that makes this such an elegantly crafted collection. In her introduction, she explains, “I wanted to understand some of the mystery of what makes a life, what makes a memory, why we remember what we remember.” Thankfully she has the skill and the courage to accomplish her task: her perspective and insight illuminate the work like the slow and steady glow of a veladora, and, as she examines her own development — from young girl to unruly teen to mother and wife — what emerges from shards and fragments of experience is a collection of essays with depth, wit, and wisdom.