Last Spring, I attended the AWP conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The conference included an enormous book fair with over 800 exhibitors. It was both a paradise and completely overwhelming. I brought a large messenger bag, and all three days, I filled it with purchases. It was so heavy, I thought the bag was going to rip! I was most excited for the Tin House Books booth. Tin House is one of my favorite publishers, and now that I live in Portland, I can confirm that it is the very best thing in the city.
Darcey Steinke's novel, Sister Golden Hair, is from my AWP 2016 haul. I walked up to the Tin House booth and bought every Tin House book that I didn't previously own. Tin House rarely publishes a clunker, so without reading the back covers, I just stacked them up and brought them to the counter. The guy at the booth was gobsmacked, he had never sold so many books to a single buyer. My Tin House love runs deep. I've been traveling and moving, so this is the first chance I've had to dive into my AWP books. It's like Christmas in October!
PLOT - Sister Golden Hair is a coming of age story set in the 1970's in Roanoke, Virginia. Jesse is twelve when her father, a former Christian minister, leaves his church and moves his family to Bent Tree, a dingy apartment complex in Virginia. Her parents both struggle with their new situation, trying to figure out an identity that is different from minister and wife. Her younger brother quickly makes friends in their neighborhood, as Jesse struggles to figure out her place in this new town.
LIKE- The chapters in Sister Golden Hair are named after characters than play a significant role in Jesse's adolescence. For example, the first chapter is Sandy, named after an adult neighbor who Jesse befriends. Free-spiritied Sandy is completely different from Jesse's parents, an even stronger contrast since this is the first person she really engages with since leaving their Christian church. I liked how naming the chapters structured the novel, because once I figured out the pattern, I could see the significance of these characters shaping Jesse.
Jesse is awkward, painfully so. Her inner thoughts and outward actions are often cringe-worthy. I don't think they would be so hard to read, if Steinke hadn't written so truthfully. Teenage years are awkward and uncomfortable, Steinke captures that through Jesse. The worst of it, is when Jesse is attempting to befriend a popular girl, Sheila. The relationship between Jesse and Sheila, reminded me of the teenage girls in American Beauty. The more we learn about Sheila, the more we realize that popularity doesn't make her immune from insecurities and odd behavior. She is desperate to be a Playboy Bunny and practices in a homemade costumes, roping Jesse into her role playing. When Sheila has had enough, rather than asking Jesse to go home, she locks Jesse in her bedroom closet, something that Jesse doesn't protest. Cringe-worthy.
Steinke rips away the exterior and shows that adolescence is equal opportunity awkward for everyone, even the kid that seems popular. No one is immune. Without exception, all of the kids in this novel are awkward and the adults definitely don't have their lives figured out. Things are messy and complicated. Readers be warned, reading Sister Golden Hair will dredge up some of those uncomfortable memories from your own childhood. Steinke has managed to write a time travel novel!
DISLIKE- Nothing. Steinke is gifted at writing characters and emotions. Sister Golden Hair is not plot heavy, but more of a cruise through Jesse's teen years ,and a look at the influences that can shape a person.
RECOMMEND- Yes. Sister Golden Hair is a journey back to adolescence, pimples and all. Steinke is a masterful storyteller and in Jesse, she has created a memorable protagonist. On an unrelated/related note, since the current season of American Horror Story is set in Roanoke, it's nice to have an alternate Roanoke story that's not completely terrifying!