A Certain Strain of Peculiarby Gigi Amateau
This is the last time Mary Harold will have a panic attack at school when kids call her "the grossest girl." If Mom won’t move back to Alabama, her thirteen-year-old daughter will just have to drive herself 691 miles to Grandma Ayma’s farmhouse — and a whole new life. With Ayma’s loving support, Mary Harold is soon strong enough to help Bud, the Cherokee farm manager, wrangle the cows, and confident enough to stand up for his daughter, Dixie, a girl with a strain of peculiar that makes her whinny and stamp like a horse to keep the world at bay. Mary Harold still misses her mom, but has started to have dreams of the Black Warrior Forest that are offering clues. As she listens to their message, and to her own heart, she discovers how powerful and surprising the bonds of family can be.
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What happens to my mind sometimes is complicated. First, my nose completely bails on inhaling. Then, it's like I even forget how to open up my mouth to take a breath. All respiration stops and my brain panics. If it worked right, my mind would slow down and remember: the nose, mouth, and lungs are waiting to hear, "Go."
Once I realize I need air, my brain screams to me, "I can't breathe!" the respiratory parts hear, "can't", so they don't. My mind thinks I must be dying. Some smallness in me is usually right there, whispering: calm down, open your mouth, breathe, calm down, open your mouth, breathe.
But the thought of dying grows so big, so fast, that my chest starts hurting, maybe from lack of oxygen. Then, I think that I am having a heart attack. I am only thirteen; I am afraid to die.
Mom thinks this is a panic attack; I call it my fear of dying. I don't think that's really what it is though. I think it's more a fear of never belonging.
I am looking at the back of drew Walker's head. Even now, after everything, I want to touch the waves of his hair. There is not a girl who doesn't love him, who doesn't imagine being kissed by him, who doesn't rush to enter a doorway just in front of him. he likes to place his hand in the small of girls' backs as a protective gesture -except mine. Not once has he placed his hand in the small of my back. Well, he did once, but it wasn't for real.
I force myself deaf to the too-close-to-me sound of drew telling his friends about a girl he met over the weekend. I hear where this conversation will end. I look for a way to really go deaf, just until I can get home. I pick up my hands, all casual, and put them under my hair, over my ears. Then my leg itches and as hard as I try not to scratch it, I reach down just to touch the spot on my left calf that itches and I hear the rude boys again.
"Was she like, hot at all?" one of them asks.
Drew laughs, "no, she was disgusting."
"Like a three?"
"Worse than a three," Drew answers.
Without lowering his voice, the worst of those boys asks, "Was she as bad as Mary Harold?"
I keep my silence and scratch my leg. For the fifth consecutive school day, I keep my silent vigil. Then I stop breathing; my chest pinches so tight that I feel sure I am having a heart attack this time. I wish had my phone to text mom to help me because the smallness is able to ask for help from mom.
"I'm afraid of dying," I might manage to squeak out. Mom can always look at me and see how tense my neck is, how frightened my eyes are, and see I am in a world of trouble.
the boys sit right in front of me, wondering right out loud, if there could ever be a girl more disgusting than me. My face turns violet, I'm sure of it, because I fear that my skin will not hold in all of the blood rising up into my face. I seal myself completely inside my hair canopy, so no sound can get in and no sound can get out.
People shouldn't bind their hair to stupid promises. Even five year old people should know better, but my ex-best friend Krystal and I made a hair pact in kindergarten. Back when we both had real short hair, back when we both said I love you, we vowed that as long as we were friends, we would never cut our hair. Krystal cut her hair a long time ago, even before she dropped me. My hair has kept growing.
I hide deep in the silence of my long black hair. drew and his posse aren't talking about the gross weekend girl. They are talking about me and my favorite sweater and ripping about how my mom must never do laundry.
I wear this navy pullover every day to cover my boobs because they're getting big. I'm the one who forgets to wash the sweater; I do our laundry since Mom works so hard. The stupid sweater is hand wash only. I hate hand washing; we have a shitty laundry room without a good place to let hand-wash stuff dry.
I fight my own urge to kick drew's desk over and over until he shuts up. Instead, I sink way away. I imagine that I am not one of them; I am the blackboard, or the desk, but not the grossest girl.
"Miss Woods, please answer the question."
I am not the grossest girl; I am the pencil.
Every desk squeaks; I feel all of their heads turn to face me. I need air. I keep on staring at my college-rule paper thinking maybe I can write myself between the blue lines.
"All right, Mary Harold enough is enough. If you can't come to class prepared, don't bother showing up."
I vanish, again, into the forest of my hair, where no light can get in. I wish I could block out these sounds; I crawl deeper, and still, I hear the desk drawer open. My teacher's pen rips across the demerit slip. She tears the demerit off its pad and flicks it up above her head. "Get out of my classroom."
All of them laugh; I leave. In the hall, I press my cheek against the cold cinderblock wall to jolt myself into a new pattern of breathing.
I duck past the office window and run into the library. The librarian notices me sneaking in, but doesn't ask for my pass. She never asks. I give her my usual thank-you eyes and rush to find a corner where I can fall into the earth and never come out.
This could be happening to anybody. Maybe a girl gets caught picking her nose and that day, at that moment in time, it's the worst thing to do. The next day a different girl might stand in the same corner of the same hall and dig even deeper - so deep she ought to call miss Utility. Maybe, even more people see her, yet nothing happens.
One boy might own a case of dandruff so intense that it's either a significant meteorological snow event or a real medical problem, only nobody but his parents and his doctor know that it's a real disease kind of thing. Maybe until thanksgiving nobody really notices because...
Meet the Author
Gigi Amateau is the author of Chancey of the Maury River and Claiming Georgia Tate. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
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With accessible writing that comes straight from the heart, this story is full of the complex emotions we all feel. It is a story of the redeeming power of love, carefully written, with exceptionally well-developed characters that pack a lot in a relatively slim volume. My opinion, it's ready for the silver screen!
Mary Harold Woods is peculiar. Because she is so peculiar, she is often picked on by her classmates, and she doesn't feel like she belongs in Virginia. However, there is one place that Mary Harold has always felt like she belongs: Wren, Alabama. Wren is where her beloved Grandma, Ayma, lives. However, Mary Harold's mother, Tabitha (Bye), won't go back. So it's up to Mary Harold to somehow get to Wren so she can figure out who she is and where she belongs in the world. Once in Wren, Mary Harold works as a farmhand along with the friendly Bud, who has some past history with Bye. And there's another surprise in Wren: another girl just as peculiar as Mary Harold herself. Dixie is odd, and Mary Harold takes it upon herself to stand up for Dixie and protect her, something no one ever did for Mary Harold. Through this coming-of-age and self-discovery story, Gigi Amateau provides a quaint and peaceful setting where a lone and lonely girl finds herself. Any reader can relate to the sense of belonging that Mary Harold struggles with in the beginning of the novel. A CERTAIN STRAIN OF PECULIAR is recommended for all teenage girls who went through the odd phase of coming into your body and personality, becoming who you are today.