Sweetgirl’s protagonist, Percy James, was heavily influenced by True Grit’s Maddie Ross and Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone – two of my favorite characters from two of my favorite novels – and I’ve been deeply flattered by some of the connections reviewers and readers have drawn between the three heroines. Even if those comparisons were to say that Percy wasn’t quite as cool. I’m thrilled to have Percy in the conversation either way, but the truth is there are some lesser-known heroines who are equal contributors to her DNA.
The first is Victoria Roubideaux, from Kent Haruf’s brilliant novel Plainsong. Victoria is a newly pregnant teenager who’s been tossed on the street by her mother, abandoned by a two-bit boyfriend, and mocked by bullies at school until she’s eventually shepherded into the protective care of the McPherson brothers – two reclusive farmers who provide the awkward and profoundly endearing love that helps Victoria survive, and eventually to flourish.
Victoria does not blame anybody for her predicament, there are no scapegoats or excuses, but only the sober recognition of her reality and the willingness and strength to deal with uncomfortable facts. She is radically self-reliant and tough, and when the McPhersons take her in she brings meaning and joy into the brothers’ quiet, sheltered lives.
Victoria is the strong, silent type. A poor girl from small town Colorado, she provides an entry point into what I see as Percy’s stoicism and radical belief in the power of putting one foot in front of the other. And this idea of pushing forward, of dogged resistance, is both metaphorical and concrete. Percy must carry herself and baby Jenna to safety through a snowstorm, while Victoria fights through a maze of socio-economic barriers every bit as cold and brutal as Percy’s blizzard.
Sylvia’s first line is a template for what openings should do – particularly in the first person. They set the tone, start the story, and let you know exactly who you’re dealing with.
Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.
It’s an opening I’ve come back to over and over again as a writer, and when you put it side by side with Percy’s, the influence becomes pretty clear.
Nine days after Momma disappeared I heard she was throwing down with Shelton Potter. Gentry said she was off on a bad one and wandering around the farmhouse like a goddamn ghost.
Bambara’s story is about economic inequality in 1970s America, and specifically New York, where poor Black children live within a short cab ride of vast, incredible wealth. This is easily, if not directly, relatable to Percy’s experience in a small tourist town where the rich vacation beside glaring poverty.
“The Lesson” is about Ms. Moore, who Sylvia describes as the only woman on the block with a college education and no first name, and the day she takes the neighborhood kids on a fact-finding mission to the FAO Schwartz.
The children have never been to the luxury toy store, despite being just blocks away. They would have no reason to go – they can’t afford anything there – and are appropriately jarred by the toys and their accompanying price tags. Some of the children get angry, while others feel a blush of shame. Some are hesitant. They are all perplexed.
Sylvia becomes dismayed at the end of the story when her best friend, Sugar, supplies the homerun answer to Ms. Moore’s question about the purpose of the trip. Essentially, Sugar gets the lesson – shit ain’t fair – while the day’s meaning remains slightly unclear to Sylvia. This lack of clarity upsets her.
We start down the block and she gets ahead which is O.K. by me cause I’m going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.
Victoria and Sylvia are abandoned in the face of significant inequalities, both personal and systemic, and both make a decision to push forward and fight back. Victoria, with her stoic perseverance, and Sylvia, with her deeply felt, sharply conveyed anger. And just like Maddie Ross and Ree Dolly before her, Percy needs deep reserves of both.
Words by Travis Mulhauser.