Miami Book Fair

Review: Darcey Steinke’s ‘Sister Golden Hair’

Sister Golden Hair. Darcey Steinke. Tin House. 333 pages. $15.95.
Sister Golden Hair. Darcey Steinke. Tin House. 333 pages. $15.95.

Swift, sharply comic and often heartbreaking, Sister Golden Hair is a wonderful novel. Darcey Steinke’s eye for the telling detail and her terrific comic timing bring the gawky preteen to life. Step into young Jesse’s head, and you’re 12 years old again and heading into junior high, with all the excitement and misery that implies.

The time is August 1972, around the time the ’60s revolution peaked. Once again, Jesse’s family is on the move. “The reason was, my father told us, that there were not many jobs for defrocked ministers,” Jesse says.

But her father’s long hair hadn’t turned the church elders against him; nor was the culprit his preaching against the war in Vietnam. His gay commitment ceremony for parishioners did the job. At a Methodist “clergy trial,” the jury kicked him out of the church. (Steinke, who’s also the author of the novels Up Through the Water, Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves and Milk, has her own ties to religion — she’s the daughter of a Lutheran minister and edited a collection of essays entitled Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited with Rick Moody.)

Now the family’s holed up in a motel on the fringes of Roanoke, Virginia, the last stop on their downhill slide. Dad’s just a civilian now, on an existential search for something he’s not sure of. They can’t get into their rattletrap condo in Bent Tree because the hysterical tenant is barricaded inside.

Jesse measures her mother’s moods on a scale of five (“brow furrowed, vaguely unhappy”) down to zero, which she is about to hit. Her kid brother Phillip is OK with this, but Jesse? Not so much. Puberty just hit, and she’s taking the changes hard.

“It didn’t seem fair that I had to change shape. I wished someone would have asked me; I might have said yes, but I would have liked a choice … I knew I was ‘developing,’ as my mother so annoyingly called it. I knew too that it was natural, but I felt like a skinny monster. … I knew I was moving away from my old self into a new place, I didn’t want to look like the Playboy Bunny I’d seen on television with the huge breasts and wide idiotic smile…”

Jesse will rethink that once the family is settled at Bent Tree. While her mother prefers the Kennedys and other celebrities to her real family, Jesse takes her encounters with women and the preteen girls who live Bent Tree as chapters in a how-to book about life.

First there’s Sandy, a sexy divorcee with a boy Phillip’s age. Unlike Jesse’s folks, Sandy has high-end high-sixties furniture and slinky outfits that as designated babysitter, Jesse tries on, along with Sandy’s makeup. This bright girl, who dwells on The Big Book of Burial Rites and fantasizes about becoming a unicorn, is trying to learn how to be a woman.

She studies wardrobe and makeup with Sandy until Sandy’s rich boyfriend dumps her, and she falls apart. When he repossesses the showy furniture and the car, Jesse turns the page. She’d like to hang out with Sheila, the queen of junior high, but Sheila’s too cool for school. Jesse settles for goofy Jill, a smart wild child with a lively imagination. She’s probably the best friend Jessie will ever have. Jill lives on the edge of poverty until her mom ditches the family and takes off with a new man. Child Services breaks up the family, and Jill goes off the rails.

Jesse’s next life lessons come via glamorous Julie, who runs a dance studio. She costumes Jesse along with her own pudgy daughter, Kira, teaching the girls how to do the Playboy “bunny dip,” and all the girly flourishes that supposedly attract men. Jesse has doubts about Kira, but she practices hard, thinking that the route to success may be via the Playboy Club. She thinks she wants to be a bunny, poofy cotton tail, floppy ears and all.

While her dad migrates from religious cults to consciousness-raising groups in search of enlightenment, Jesse moves on to another lesson in building a better girl. Her new best friend is Sheila, who hooks up with a teacher in the not-so-exotic French Quarter of the mall. She takes Jesse along, another learning experience. Next teacher? Her first boyfriend, Dwayne, but by this time, Jesse understands that there’s more going on inside her head than she thought.

“After an hour of trying to get to sleep, of turning my pillow over and over, I decided to pray. But this time I wasn’t going to pray to Cher … or even to a giant mushroom, imagining myself lying prostrate under it. I wanted to contact God directly, but the ways I’d been taught to connect didn’t work anymore, it was like trying to talk on a phone with terrible reception.”

Jesse’s caught up in the same questions that sent her dad off in search of the truth. Steinke’s edgy characters and their concern with whatever force drives the known world and the unseen world bring power and excitement to this lovely book.

Darcey Steinke appears at 4:30p.m. Sunday in the Auditorium at Miami Dade College.