The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa: Stories

The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa: Stories

4.1 6
by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

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With the stories in her first collection, Elizabeth Stuckey-French establishes herself as a smart new voice in American fiction and stakes her claim to a territory somewhere on the edge of stability, where normal is not just boring but nearly impossible, and where standing out in a crowd may just cause isolation.

Her characters, mostly Midwesterners, are bizarre


With the stories in her first collection, Elizabeth Stuckey-French establishes herself as a smart new voice in American fiction and stakes her claim to a territory somewhere on the edge of stability, where normal is not just boring but nearly impossible, and where standing out in a crowd may just cause isolation.

Her characters, mostly Midwesterners, are bizarre but endearing. A reform school graduate is placed in the care of her psychic aunt and in the servitude of a lucrative dog retrieval scheme. A mother who has accepted her son’s modest employment selling blue jeans bemoans the above-board lifestyle she discovers him leading as a wanted criminal. A rehab counselor lives vicariously through her already pregnant stepdaughter’s love affair with a drunk who spends his days in recovery and his nights in the bar.

Full of wry wit, tender sympathy, and heartland attitude, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa is as strange, funny, and poignant as the real world it resembles.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A wonderfully original voice.”–Chicago Tribune

“Remarkable for its range, humor, and quirkiness.”–USA Today

Publishers Weekly
Talk hosts like Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer have accustomed Americans to attention-demanding characters and bizarre incidents...Stuckey-French bests those spectacles of the everyday absurd, and does so with style and verve.
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
A "wonderful" debut short-story collection peopled with "a jelly bean selection" of "eccentric" characters in offbeat situations. Characterized as "lovable and wacky," our readers can't wait for Stuckey-French's debut novel. "This book deserves attention!"
Kirkus Reviews
A provocative debut collection of 12 edgy, effectively varied tales, many set in what appears to be their author's home state of Indiana. Rigorous understatement is Stuckey-French's game, and the few comparatively flat stories here either don't move far enough away from their ho-hum premises or don't develop potentially intriguing situations. Respective examples are "Blessing," in which a middle-aged father's outing with his college-student son only hints at the ironies of age offering reassurances, if not certainties, to youth; and "Scavenger Hunt," an overattenuated black comedy that implicitly compares a long-divorced woman's neurotic instability to both the title game and TV's lowbrow mock-documentary Unsolved Mysteries. The searching "Electric Wizard" builds a contrast between a poetry teacher's relationship with her two young daughters and the bereaved couple—parents of a student who has killed himself—who importune her for proof "that his suicidal behavior arose from sheer genius." But it feels like a half-finished version of a longer, more detailed story. A comparable thickness of conception and implication appears in several pieces, and works best in "Junior," a carefully controlled portrayal of a moody juvenile misfit who's initially attracted to, then discouraged by, her extended family's eccentricity and needfulness; "The Visible Man," in which a widow passively resigned to life in an old age home finds opportunities for mischief and a kind of control in her "friendship" with her suggestible former employer; and the superb "Search and Rescue":awonderfully imagined story, developed in an unusual and very moving way, that skillfully charts the tensions between two very different office co-workers: a volunteer scuba driver dedicated to retrieving drowning victims, and a lonely younger woman chained to the family demands imposed by her father, a helpless Alzheimer's victim. A bit uneven, then, but strong debut. One hopes Stuckey-French will soon test her gift for exploring arrestingly unconventional characters and conflicts in the ampler latitudes of the novel.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.15(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt


THE CITY pool was full of children that day, but I don't think that's what bothered me. I was fourteen and happy to be out with my friends. It was sunny but cool for mid-July in Iowa. A breeze flipped up the edges of our beach towels as we lined them up on the crumbling cement, anchoring them with clogs, a bottle of coconut oil, and a transistor radio which seemed to play nothing but Sammy Davis, Jr., singing "The Candy Man." My friends flopped down on their backs and fell asleep, but I couldn't relax. I sat cross-legged in my faded bikini, a hand-me-down from my sister Daisy.

Daisy was lifeguarding, but she couldn't see me, didn't even know I was there. She looked like a stranger perched above the masses in her red tank suit and mirror sunglasses, her nose a triangle of zinc oxide. In one month, she was going away to college, leaving me to take care of our father. I couldn't let myself think about how dreary life would be without Daisy. I gazed out at the pool, which was circular, with the deep part and diving island in the center. A group of four or five children splashed around at the edge of the deep water, shrieking and dunking each other. A smaller girl in a green one-piece bathing suit dog-paddled near the splashers, barely keeping her chin above water. She wanted to play too, but the other children—friends? neighbors? sisters and brothers?—ignored her. Teenagers were doing cannonballs off the high dive, and their waves sloshed over her head. Nobody except me seemed to notice. The girl was paddling as hard as she could, getting nowhere.

I stood up and waded into the water, which reeked of chlorine, and began swimming the breaststroke toward the group of children, holding my head up as a snake does. The older kids moved off toward the slide, leaving the little girl behind. When she saw me, she opened her eyes wide and reached out. I didn't have a clue how to rescue someone. I took her hand and she clawed her way up my arm. She was on me like a monkey. Her legs swung up and wrapped around my neck, dunking me, choking me. I tried to stand, but I couldn't touch bottom. She kicked me, hard, in the jaw. I shoved her away but she held on to me. I'd had enough of this kind of treatment. My hand gripped her head like a rubber ball. I held her underwater and watched her thin body squirming in its green ruffled suit.

Someone finally screamed, and the lifeguards began blowing their whistles. Daisy dove from her chair in a red flash. Still I held the girl under. It's too late now, was the only thought I remember having. A man tackled me from behind, and Daisy jerked the girl from the water. The man gripped me tightly to his blubbery chest, as if I were trying to run away. Over on the cement Daisy knelt beside the girl and gave her mouth-to-mouth. After a few seconds Daisy stood up, holding the squalling girl, stroking her wet hair. The ruffles on the girl's suit were flipped up and plastered to her body. "Daisy," I called out. When Daisy looked over at me, her face slack with shock, I realized what I'd done.

Everything after that seemed nightmarish but inevitable. Daisy and I were taken up to the pool manager's office, dripping wet, to sit in plastic chairs and wait for the police. The detective who came wore a velour shirt and looked familiar, like someone I might've seen at church. Daisy reported what had happened in a businesslike voice, while I stared at the tufts of hair on my big toes, wondering if I should shave them. The detective asked me if I had anything to add. "She tried to drown me first," I said.

"That's not how the witnesses tell it," he said.

I glanced over at Daisy. "Sorry," she said, ever the honest one. "I didn't see that part."

At my hearing, we sat on a bench in front of the juvenile judge—first the detective, then my father, hanging his head, then my sister Daisy, her arm around my father, and then me. My mother, who'd washed her hands of us, didn't show. Because of my previous record—shoplifting and truancy—the judge decided to send me to the Cary Home in Des Moines for one school year.

The Cary Home for Girls was an elegant brick house tucked into a cul-de-sac on the edge of an upper-class neighborhood. From the outside, you'd never know it contained six teenage delinquents and their live-in counselors. We bad girls attended class in the large attic of the house, ate pizza burgers, did homework together, and watched reruns of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." It hardly felt like punishment.

At night, though, things fell apart. I had relentless dreams about Lisa Lazar, the little girl from the pool. She came to the Cary Home in her ruffled bathing suit and invited me outside to play. When she smiled, crooking her finger at me, I woke up terrified. I would stare at the buzzing streetlight outside my bedroom window and wonder what someone like me was doing at the Cary Home, someone who, until recently, had played by the rules, was fairly popular, had a semi-cute boyfriend, and tried her best to get decent grades.

In April, near the end of my stay at Cary Home, my father called to tell me that his sister, Marie-Therese, was coming to see me. "She wants to help out," he said. I'd never met my aunt before. She and my father exchanged Christmas cards and birthday phone calls, but that was about it. "Marie stays on the move. She's a wheeler-dealer," was my father's only explanation of why we never saw her. I wasn't sure what a wheeler-dealer was, but it sounded intriguing.

On the evening of her visit, I stepped into the living room and saw a fattish woman in baggy shorts and huiraches sprawled on the sofa, snoring. I recognized her dark curly hair and sharp features from an old photo I'd once found in my father's desk at the Magruder Times, of which he was the editor—a photo of my father and Marie-Therese as children, posing in chaps and cowboy boots in front of some mountains in New Mexico, where they grew up. I said, "Hello?"

She bounced up, wide awake. "I'm your aunt Merry," she said, shaking my hand. "M-E-R-R-Y, as in Christmas."

We sat down across from each other and she explained that she'd recently changed her name to Merry because she'd moved to Columbus, Ohio. "Midwesterners don't like anything Frenchy," she said.

"That's true," I said. I was disappointed that she'd changed her name and looked so ordinary and lived in Ohio. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my roommate, the klepto, in the yard, peering in through the screen window. She was sneaking out to meet her boyfriend the arsonist. She bugged out her eyes and flicked her tongue. I ignored her. I asked Merry, "Why'd you decide to come see me?"

"Brother said family could visit," she said. "And I'm family, last I checked."

"Thanks," I said. My parents had never once been to see me at the home. My father was too ashamed, and my mother was too busy looking after her own father, Smitty, who owned the Times. Daisy, who'd postponed college for a year, drove over every Sunday and took me out to the movies or the Frozen Custard. We always got teary when we said good-bye. She would ruffle my hair and call me Squirt, willing me to be innocent again.

"Listen, sugar," said Merry, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. "I called Brother last week 'cause I got the feeling something was wrong. He's worried sick. I offered to look after you, just for the summer. Transitional period. Before you go home."

So they didn't want me back. "I committed a crime," I said. "That's why I'm here."

"Nice place, too." Merry looked around at our cozy living room, furnished in Early American sofas and chairs that could swallow you whole.

"I don't want to be in the way," I said. "Don't you have a family in Ohio?" I knew she'd been married twice and had step-children.

"Oh, sure," she said. "But we won't be going to Ohio. We'll be staying out at the homeplace, in New Mexico."

My father once wrote a piece for the newspaper about what it was like to grow up on a ranch—haying, feeding livestock, planting and watering alfalfa—but he never talked to us about New Mexico. His parents had been to visit us a few times when I was little, but I barely remembered them. Now his father was dead and his mother was a sick old lady. "Why do we have to go out there?" I asked Merry.

She took my hand and squeezed it. One of her eyes was blue, the other green. "I'm a psychic," she said. "You're going to be helping me with a job. Mom has offered us the use of her home."

"I tried to kill someone," I said. "A small child."

"I know, sugar," Merry said. "You did an extremely vicious thing." She stood up and slung her purse strap over her shoulder, as if that settled that.

I was relieved, if only for a moment, to think that it did.

Aunt Merry and I left for New Mexico the last week of June. In Kansas she insisted that I drive her Lincoln Continental. I had my learner's permit, but I'd never driven on the interstate.

"Don't sweat it," Merry said. "The Queen Mary handles like a dream."

I sat up straight, my hands gripping the wheel as we rolled across Kansas at 70 miles per hour. Merry propped her bare feet up on the dashboard, knees tucked under her purple caftan. If I dropped down to 65, she would bark out, "What are you waiting for? A tow?" If I sped up to 75, she'd imitate a police siren.

But most of the time she talked about herself. "I wear different-colored contacts," she said. "Throws people off balance. They pop out sometimes, but I always find them. I have ESP. Had it since I was a kid. Once Brother lost his G-Man ring and I led him right to the spot, in the schoolyard, where it fell off his finger. Unfortunately, someone had stepped on it by then. When I was your age, Mom put me on the radio. My own psychic call-in show. I directed a woman right to where her baby wandered off to—the bottom of a well. Brother was so jealous."

I didn't want to reveal how eager I was to learn anything about my father. "Was he?" I said in a neutral tone.

"He was," Merry said. "He got stuck with all the chores. Didn't stand up for himself. Held it all in, till he couldn't take it anymore." She started humming "Rock of Ages" and stared out the window, letting me know she was finished with that subject.

We passed a muddy lot packed tight with cattle that seemed to go on for miles, bigger than anything I'd ever seen in Iowa. Finally I asked Merry, "Do you still have a radio show?"

"Oh no, but I still help people find things. They call me up from all over the U.S. and Canada. Missing dogs are my specialty." She studied her feet and wiggled her red-painted toes.

Merry was more childlike, and more self-confident, than any adult I'd ever known. She didn't seem to realize, or care, how weird she was. I said, "How do you find missing dogs?" Up ahead, in my lane, a station wagon was going much too slow.

"Pass him, pass him!" Merry yelled. We surged around the station wagon and veered back into our own lane. Merry went on in her ordinary voice, "Say, for example, some rich guy calls me from Indiana. He and his wife are missing their yellow Lab, Captain Crunch. Someone stole him right out of his pen. Man and his wife are distraught. Dog's a kid substitute. They've been offering a two-thousand-dollar reward, but no leads. I'm quiet for a while, and then I say, 'Your dog is safe. I see a late-model Ford, dark green, with two men in it. They drag Captain Crunch into their car. I see them driving to New Mexico. They're taking the dog to Los Alamos, for research purposes. But they stop at a convenience store in Espa-ola, and the Captain escapes.'

" 'Thank God,' says the man. 'Where is he now?'

" 'I can't tell exactly,' I say. 'Put an ad in the Santa Fe New Mexican. You'll find him.'

"He says, 'Thank you, thank you' and says he'll send me a check for my commission."

"Are you right all the time?" I felt as if Aunt Merry and I were aliens, flying through the wheat fields in a space ship.

"One hundred percent of the time." She swiveled to face me, the gold trim around the neck of her caftan glittering. "I can guarantee that somebody living with her grandmother just outside Santa Fe will answer that ad, and the happy couple will drive to New Mexico to pick up their dog. My little helper will hand over most of the reward money to me, keeping a bit for herself. All the time I'll be back in Ohio, so nobody can connect us. Not that these people ever try. They might suspect they've been had, but they've got a new dog. Everyone's happy. Even the dog."

I glanced down at the pavement racing underneath us. "I thought you had a gift."

"I do," she said. "I know how to make a living."

"I'm getting tired," I said. "My eyes aren't seeing very well."

"At the next rest area, pull over and take five."

"What if you can't find a dog that looks like theirs?"

"He's waiting at Mother's. Captain Crunch Junior." She swung her feet back up on the dashboard. "It'll be an adventure, sugar," she said.

My grandmother lived in a low brick house with tiny windows, surrounded by ramshackle outbuildings that looked like they were floating in a sea of red dirt. A few cottonwood trees punctuated the gray-green sagebrush. "This is a farm?" I asked Merry. "I thought you lived on a farm."

"We utilized an irrigation system," Merry said.

When we got out of the car, I saw a dog tied to the cornerpost of the front porch. He was yellow, but he looked part Lab and part something else. He was smaller than a Lab and had floppy ears. "They'll never believe this is their dog," I said. He strained at the rope and wagged his tail. "Is that the best you could find?"

What People are saying about this

Janet Burroway
Inventive, irreverent and riveting-these stories come at you off the page. Didn't I know this paper girl? Didn't I meet that suburban sorceress, this crabby poet, that sweet delinquent, this mother-of-the-felon? Elizabeth Stuckey-French's characters charge straight out of Middle America, one part wacky and two parts doomed. That they are also resilient and funny makes this extraordinary collection a delight to read.
Margaret Livesey
From the Author of The Missing World and Criminals

Elizabeth Stuckey-French's characters may live in small towns but their lives are anything but small as they seek to find their way out of intricate situations, give voice to surprising emotions. The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa is a rich, absorbing collection, the first of many, I hope, by this gifted writer.

Bob Shacochis
I love Elizabeth Stuckey-French's uncommonly delightful stories, her generous eye for the blessings and yearnings, the lush melancholies and sweet quirks, of corn-fed domesticity.
— (Bob Shacochis, author of The Immaculate Invasion and Easy in the Islands)

Meet the Author

A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Elizabeth Stuckey-French has been awarded a James Michener Fellowship, and her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and other literary magazines. She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

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First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa: Stories 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author has a gift for effortlessly creating characters. Loved her descriptions of midwestern milieu. I was impressed by her ability to switch between first person and third person to equal effect.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Bizarre ¿¿characters who walk a thin line between reality and delusion¿ make The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa a lovable, funny and pleasurable read. Elizabeth Stuckey-French writes a unique book filled with witty stories and characters that delight readers. The flowing theme of Stuckey-French¿s novel, ¿¿Midwesters trying to make sense of a changing world,¿ is portrayed by these characters that find their way out of sticky, uncommon situations. The entrancing style of writing, smart and wry, pleases the reader¿s mind, and puts their world into an awkward yet enjoyable vibe. One can become any of Stuckey-French¿s personalities due to the ample amount of detail she utilizes in her stories. Detail also sparks imagery that can be seen in any reader¿s imagination. The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa takes on an inspiring and whimsical tone. With novel characters that are easy to relate to, one is inspired by each of their tales. The connection between reader and character can help seek new ways of changing life for the better. This book influences an individual to escape convoluted situations by extraordinary characters. Each has an endearing path to a solution.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This group of short stories should not be passed up! Instead of basic, stereotypical characters I found defined individuals and those who are still finding themselves. I'm anxiously waiting for more by this new, fresh author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is incredible! it is a must-buy from a author who's work i expect to see in every bookstore in america!