The "lost heroine" continues her italicized perambulations, trials and tribulations right through the center of this novel. She struggles to placate Indians; she loses her parents, finds no sympathy in other village children nor succor from the Town Fathers, and steps out into the big world on her own.
Not entirely unlike like Sheehan's central character who creates her.
History Lesson for Girls is set in 1970s Connecticut, 200 years after the perambulations of the lost heroine. It's about narrator Alison Glass' 13th year--"the year we moved to Weston, the year my parents went haywire, the year my back started curving out of control as if it were the life of the party." The year her childhood ended.
Montessori-schooled Alison, the only child of a poet/professor father and flamboyant artist mother, is like a Christian to the lions when they move to suburban Connecticut. Not only does she not subscribe to the prevailing preppy m.o., but she wears her own personal-insult magnet: a full back brace for scoliosis. Her only refuge is her black pony, Jazz, until a horse-loving soul mate, Kate Hamilton, comes on the scene. That Kate is popular at school simplifies one aspect of Alison's life; that she is the child of dangerously unconventional parents complicates another.
History Lesson for Girls is UA Creative Writing Director Aurelie Sheehan's third book. The polished prose and artful understatement critics noted in her previous work are seen here, but they're sweetened by her affecting portrayal of her very unaffected protagonist.
The tale of the lost heroine threaded through the novel's action is Alison and Kate's history project. Their town is preparing to celebrate its bicentennial, and Alison and Kate decide to fold their historical research into the story of a girl's life. This is a crafty little multipurpose device on Sheehan's part. The internal, running narrative plays a role in the action (providing realistic school-related activity and interaction between the girls); it reflects on the central action, and it reveals their characters harboring still-innocent longings for "happy family," heroic exploits and timely rescue--as neglect and physical and substance abuse jade the girls' own lives.
The narcissistic '70s provide a fertile setting for parent-child relations. Kate's father, once an up-front businessman, is now into lucrative Egyptian shamanism. Her mother seems to stay high for a living. In Alison's family, the move to Weston opens cracks in her parents' union--between her father, the son of "black" Irish immigrants, and her mother, the artsy daughter of a wealthy New York City surgeon. As her father retreats increasingly down the social ladder, her mother tones down the "artiste" and attempts to climb it.
Central to character, plot and theme is Alison's scoliosis. The brace sets her up for peer ridicule. Her parents' efforts to deal with it contribute to the plot line, with her mother's frenetic search for cures providing comic relief (green spaghetti comes to mind; as does "intuiting the One" through Movement for Life--with middle-aged, long-haired ladies imitating trees; and faith healing). And it's the core metaphor.
Just as the "lost heroine"--however valiant her efforts--cannot control the social and cultural chaos around her, sweet Alison cannot fix what breaks around her. Adults betray one another; children enter the world of sex and drugs, and suffer. What's beloved can die. Sheehan's novel, however carefully crafted, is not without flaws. Some of the secondary characters are overblown or caricatured. The tragedies feel exaggerated. But the protagonist is beautifully rendered. You know from the beginning that the Alison and Kate Horse Training Company would never be realized. But you empathize with the impulse and develop real affection for the wry, selfless child teetering on adulthood.
This is a book for the high school freshman clinging to childhood. For your middle-aged sister who still loves horses. For readers--like Alison, daughter of a poet--who don't speed-read first and last sentences of paragraphs, but believe, like poets, in "the middle part." It's a book for those who hanker after graceful story telling.
And it won't ruin the ending to reveal that the lost heroine survives: "There was only one thing to do. Put one strange black boot in front of the other, there in the Narragansett region, a place of silt and stony soil and crops of some berries but mostly corn." The End.