The Flood Girls, by Richard Fifield*****

TheFloodGirlsIf Fannie Flagg worries that she has no heir, she can relax; Richard Fifield is here. The Flood Girls is his brilliant debut, and you have to read it! Fifield will cut out your heart and feed it to you with a rusty spoon, and he’ll make you like it, too. Hell, he’ll even make you laugh through it. I got the DRC free via Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review, and I’m going to read it a second time before I archive it as I am supposed to. This is only the second time I have done so after hundreds of galleys have come my way; that should give you a measure of how impressed I am with this title.

From his arresting first line to the deeply satisfying ending, I was completely bound up in this book, only setting it aside as a reminder to myself to delay gratification and make it last a little longer. In the end my e-reader had 177 notes and marks, and every single one of them was there to highlight outstanding imagery, a passage in which yet another character was developed, a place in which he had shown us something important while saying something else, or a place in the text that was drop-dead funny. I would guess the last of these accounts for 100 of those 177 notes.

Let’s start with the premise: Rachel Flood has returned home to Quinn, Montana after many years away. She is here to make amends. It isn’t easy: “A small town never forgets, or forgives.” It’s a tough town, full of people that have survived dozens of harsh 6 month winters. Its people are abrupt and sometimes rude; they don’t suffer fools here.

Rachel’s sponsor has assured her that she doesn’t have to move back to Quinn to make amends; she isn’t here to do penance, after all. Offer the amends and then, whether or not they are accepted, hit the road! But for several reasons, not all of which Rachel understands herself at first, she chooses to stick around, and it isn’t easy. Ultimately, she is cornered into playing in the outfield of The Flood Girls, the local softball team sponsored by the mother she has wronged. She becomes a friend and mentor to Jake, a quirky twelve year old with a fondness for fine fabrics, wardrobe and design, and an intolerant right-wing Fundamentalist stepfather.

Perhaps the most technically impressive aspect of this work is the way Fifield differentiates a very wide cast of characters. I cannot think of any other novel among the 151 books I read and reviewed over the past year in which there were so many characters that were juggled so deftly. When I put down the book, I did a quick finger count of how many characters I could actually name and identify without looking. I stopped at 21, and I didn’t try long or hard. Every single one of these characters, most of whom are wonderfully eccentric, stood out in my mind, apart from two small groups (the silver miners and the Sinclairs) that are treated as such in the text.

It isn’t only the eccentric characters and the small town setting that makes me think of Flagg’s masterpiece, Fried Green Tomatoes; it is also the message. Fifield wants us to know that intolerance will kill us. It is only by accepting and celebrating one another’s differences and quirks that we become part of the human family. We must learn to help and rely upon each other, because we are all we have. That said, The Flood Girls shares Flagg’s spirit, yet it is not derivative, but wholly original.

You don’t have to like baseball to enjoy it.

This hilarious, engaging new novel is for sale to the public February 2, 2016. Very conservative evangelical Christians won’t enjoy it, and it wasn’t written for that audience anyway. It is highly recommended to everyone else. This book will be talked about, and you’ll want to be in on it from the get-go! Put this one at the top of your list.

Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son, by Lori Duron*****

raisingmyrainbowThis ground-breaking memoir made me want to stand up and cheer. Many times, I was dumbfounded by the courage of the mother who wrote about her “gender creative” child. (The term was new to me, and raised questions, which were subsequently answered.) I had a couple of small disagreements with some of the things she said (and are there any two parents with identical viewpoints in all respects?) However, most of the time I could merely bow in awe.

That, and say thank you for the ARC! I got it in a Goodreads.com giveaway. But on with the story:

You see, her second son, who she calls “C.J.” in her book, prefers to dress like a girl, play with girl toys, and have his hair done like a girl’s.

What to do? How to protect her child from the pain the greater world might bring down upon him? What is the healthy thing to do? And also, how do they protect his older brother, a “true boy’s boy”, from the repercussions of having a brother like C.J.? It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

Fortunately for C.J., his mother is a stay-home mom, and they do not struggle greatly with financial issues. They’d rather have their medical insurance pay for a therapist, but if it came to a choice between good therapy and free therapy, they had the capacity to elect for the former.

In the beginning, an agreement was reached among the adults, while C.J. was still a toddler (and before therapy), that “girl toys” such as his beloved Barbie should stay at home, or in the car, to “keep them from getting dirty or lost”. I would’ve done the same. The very thought of the cruel things that might be said to my vulnerable little boy would’ve made anything else unthinkable.

But the author’s mother, known as Nana Grab Bags because she always comes laden with sweets and toys, deliberately breaks the rule. The author is pissed. I would be, too. I’m not a grandma yet, but the rules are clear: you get to raise your own kids, and then the new parents are the boss. Sometimes this may be painful.

My own kids are grown, but I have steeled myself not to interfere or offer advice that is not wanted if and when I get grandchildren.

Various ruses are tried to get the very young CJ back on track. Once, while they are on vacation, a relative is dispatched to their home to disappear all the girl toys in the hope that C.J. will be satisfied with the “boy” toys. The effort failed, as did the trip from Santa that featured no girl toys. A sad, sad Christmas.

Breaking the news to Dad–who is a police officer–made me cringe. My own experiences with cops, and those I know of locally and in the news don’t appear to be really flexible guys. I expected abuse. But though Dad was about as leery as most fathers would be likely to be, there were no ugly scenes, only questions.

Anybody would have questions! The author begins blogging about her experience. I have never read blogs, though for awhile I wrote one. This sounds very cathartic, and a great idea.

As the child gets older and still wants to wear feminine clothing to school, I wince. It’s not going to be pretty for him…and it isn’t. At age 3, he finds a friend. He’s still basically a baby, and there isn’t much push-back. At age 4, it gets tougher. And when he goes to kindergarten, the shit hits the fan. Throughout all of it, the parents flounder and try so many different things, that the writer realizes that her son needs predictability, and their boundary is not staying put. They need a policy they can stick to, and they decide to let him be himself.

I thought back to my own experiences with gender-nonconforming children:

*When I was seven, my family moved from California to a suburb of Portland, Oregon. There were no children my own age on my block, and I was idly amusing myself on my backyard jungle gym when I heard singing.

On the back patio next door, a little boy was daintily sweeping the cement and singing the only 3 lines of a song from Cinderella that he remembered…over and over and over. He was a little younger than me, and apparently, to my own eyes in the 1960’s, a little stranger, too. But we chatted for awhile. His own play was not only limited to girl stuff, it was limited to Cinderella, and I gave up on him. I’d been there and done that, and was not interested. But I spoke to my parents about it; they were close to the child’s grandparents. They exchanged glances, and the next thing I knew, though the friendship with the next door neighbors remained intact, we had a six foot high fence between us.

It was to keep the dog in the yard, they said.

Next thing I heard, the boy’s little brother, who was not even in kindergarten yet, was invited on a hunting trip with his dad, uncles, and grandfather. My dad said, “I think they’re making sure lightening doesn’t strike twice,” and he winked at me.

I question the wisdom of hormonal and/or surgical treatment to alter the gender of any child who has not yet reached the age of consent. It is true that there are people born wishing they were biologically the opposite gender; I have also known personally at least one young man who changed his mind entirely, despite the support of family.

It would be a helluva thing to decide you wanted to be male after all, but your anatomy had been changed while you were younger.

I was shocked when the author started discussing whether to stop her son’s hormonal development on the word of a single individual who had had surgery and wished that she had started the process sooner so she would not have become so big and tall. I hope they give their son a chance to turn 21 and make that decision for himself; hormones not only build large bodies, but sometimes they mess with our minds. How many of us turned out exactly the way we thought we wanted to be at six, at twelve, at fifteen? Maybe he will; maybe he won’t.

The writer has already dealt with plenty of criticism, and she’s learned to handle it well. The fact that she writes well is also a plus. The story of raising both sons to where they were when she published her book is well paced, concise, and jammed with information. I have no doubt there are many, many mothers who thought they must be the only ones who were dealing with such a dilemma. Ladies (and fathers too), this book is for you. And for anyone who feels confused about what to do with such friends, should their children encounter them: it’s for you, too. And for those who support GLTBQ kids, here you go. For those who fear them: read this, and grow up a little.

I had some questions: what separates a transgendered person from a hermaphrodite, for example? Is someone who has male organs only and wears dresses but likes women just a cross-dresser? A transvestite? What if he likes men and does those things? My school once had a child who used only the nurse’s office for the potty and to change clothes. He was born with a penis, but his breasts developed like a girl. I say “he” but was told the child (who was not in my class) preferred to be known as “she”. Till then, I had assumed everyone who had some of each organ had gotten that way through surgery that had stopped mid-process. An eye-opener.

I felt a little impatient with the big-deal insistence on trying to find a Mrs. Santa for C.J. to sit with for Christmas. Most little girls just sit on Santa’s lap. Why not just say, “Santa this year? Or would you rather skip it?”

Mrs. Meyer was C.J.’s teacher and guardian angel, and when the author hoped Santa was good to Mrs. Meyer, I could not (as a retired teacher) help wondering what C.J. had brought her.

Here’s the very worst part, followed by the greatest triumph: apparently at the time, Orange County schools were not strong on protecting students who were victims of bullying. The older brother is severely and long-term harassed by another student, and although the kid who harasses him has to sit out recess and have a chat with adults at the school–a good first step–it is never taken beyond this point.

For shame! This should have been dealt with swiftly. I suspect the administration’s own discomfort with a gender creative student may have caused them to delay meting out the kind of justice called for. Why wasn’t this child sent home after two warnings, or at least written up and his parents notified? Why was there no time when the child being harassed was offered a supervised meeting when the harasser would be told by adults once more that this hurtful behavior must stop, and an apology is owed? If none was forthcoming, then a promise should have been required to stay away from the victimized child completely, and not to attempt to sabotage his other friendships through rumor-mongering. As a teacher, I have seen children moved to other schools when the parents took matters to their attorneys. A good no-contact order will do that, and it is a sign that the school has failed, when the law has to step in.

Every teacher in every school should have a copy of the bullying and harassment policy their district uses. Every parent should have a copy, too.

I was ecstatic when Mom called in the ACLU and did not warn the principal that the rep would be present at the meeting she had to push so hard to get. I was also pleased that the harasser, not the child who was harassed, was the one that had to change classes.

What does the future hold for this family, and in particular, for their gender-creative son? Hey, who knows? The most important thing is what the writer begins with and ends with: she will love him, no matter what