Girls in Peril


During a single summer in the 1970s, five 12-year-old girls learn that danger lies not in the external world of their night runs, where parents and their own fertile imaginations conjure visions of anonymous murderers, rapists, and other mysterious figures lurking in the nearby woods. They discover it instead in places they never would have thought to look: in their neighborhood and homes; in uncomprehending parents who steal their time and freedom (and, in one bizarre case, a thumb); in the pull of an uncertain...
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Girls in Peril: A Novella

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During a single summer in the 1970s, five 12-year-old girls learn that danger lies not in the external world of their night runs, where parents and their own fertile imaginations conjure visions of anonymous murderers, rapists, and other mysterious figures lurking in the nearby woods. They discover it instead in places they never would have thought to look: in their neighborhood and homes; in uncomprehending parents who steal their time and freedom (and, in one bizarre case, a thumb); in the pull of an uncertain world beyond their all-important friendships; and in their own burgeoning sexuality. Karen Lee Boren’s vivid novel, the premier book in the Tin House New Voice series, begins in the collective first-person point of view, but gradually this reassuring group identity splinters as the girls mature and violence close to home threatens to split them apart for good.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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The sense of foreboding in Boren's slender debut is palpable. Girls in Peril imagines a single summer in the lives of a quintet of adolescent girls in 1970s Wisconsin, as they frolic in the stifling heat. Whether they're running around the neighborhood lawns, sleeping over at each other's homes (and sneaking out at night, too), jumping rope, eavesdropping on their parents, or playing pranks on their neighbors, their games are not as innocent as they might at first appear. In fact, sometimes they contain a frightening element of risk.

The devotion of the girls to each other carries the weight of adolescent angst. When one girl leaves town for two weeks, her absence sends a pang of longing and a ripple of restlessness through the other girls. Boren is an exceptionally talented writer, and in her short work, the moment when childhood recedes into memory and the bonds of your friendship are tested is stunningly realized. Her powers of description are so apt, readers will slap at imaginary mosquitoes as they turn the pages and nod in remembrance as the girls experience their burgeoning sexuality with confusion and a desire they cannot yet name. Haunting in its familiarity, Girls in Peril explores one solitary season -- marked not only by loss but by possibility -- and the acceptance of change. (Fall 2006 Selection)
From the Publisher

"The dreamy plural voice that tells this story evokes, perfect pitch, the collective comingled self of American female adolescence. In suburban summer boredom, Boren's girls endear and endanger themselves, playing games with deadly consequences. " -Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble
"In the vein of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye or Jeffrey Eugenides' Virgin Suicides, here's a coming-of-age story with a little extra-a feel for the innocent omniscience of children, a stealing sense of dread, and (not least) a mysterious, fetishized third thumb. Boren's tale glows with the luminous hyperreality of nostalgia, without the rosy sentimentality that usually entails." -Peter Ho Davies, author of Equal Love
"Karen Lee Boren's novella beautifully differentiates itself by taking us inside that little-known tribe we call girlhood. Who can resist the restless energy, the strength, and the wholeness of these hard-worked midwestern daughters before they individuate into women in this perilous world? Not this reader. I love these girls." -Cathleen Calbert, author of Bad Judgment
"The collective voice that drives Karen Lee Boren's first novel is rapturous and steely-eyed at once, and this book beautifully captures the gestures and sensations-huge, tiny, exquisite, and excruciating-of her girls in peril. One is left elated by the power of this story, and marveling at Boren's skill." -Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land
Publishers Weekly
Set during the 1970s in a neighborhood of eastern Europeans near the shores of Lake Michigan, this crisp, self-assured tale of five girls, ranging in age from 11 to 13, is told collectively, in the first-person plural, and centers on the group's athletic ringleader, Jeanne Macek. The only daughter of 12 siblings, Jeanne possesses an extra, baby thumb on one hand that, rather than being an object of scorn, holds talismanic power for the group. Spying on the ripe, perfumed Mrs. Sobczyk as she makes her Avon lady rounds, or witnessing the sexual wrestling of Jeanne's dreamy older brother, Joey, and his lovely girlfriend up the street, they are fascinated and repelled. Then Jeanne's parents trick her into going away; on her return, the spell of childhood vanishes: Jeanne is pressed increasingly into household chores, and one of the girls, Lauren Jankowski, awakens sexually and challenges Jeanne's authority. Although it lacks the elegance of Jeffrey Eugenides's similar debut, The Virgin Suicides, Boren hits her mark. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Five neighborhood girlfriends teeter on the precipice of pubescence one fateful summer. Stirrings of change that whisper through a small lakeside Wisconsin town one long, hot August shortly after the end of the Vietnam War go unnoticed by Lauren, Donna, Jeanne, Corrine and Stacey. All they foresee is more of the same long days of play they enjoyed in summers past: four square, statues, red rover and other games of their own invention. The favorite of the group is Jeanne Macek, whose birth defect-a sixth digit on her left hand-is their mascot. They kiss and pet it; they accommodate it (tying a loop at the end of a jump rope so Jeanne can join in-and beat them!-in competitions of double-Dutch); and they share Jeanne's outrage when her mother insists mid-summer that a surgeon finally lop it off. Jeanne's return to their clique with a bandaged hand and a bad mood presages other trouble: Jeanne's oldest brother, a hothead with a reputation for violence, is arrested for pot-smoking; his girlfriend, who lives across the street, breaks off their relationship; Lauren, perhaps sensing a vacuum at the center of the group, begins to challenge Jeanne; and the girls' traditional late night escapades-sneaking out of their houses and running down to the lake-become complicated by the presence of beer and boys. Eventually Jeanne's mother, frightened by the trouble brewing with her oldest son, severs Jeanne from her pack, occupying her daughter with a long-list of one-handed chores around the house while she heals after her surgery. The remaining four, unmoored by Jeanne's absence, begin to individuate, hesitantly acknowledging the maturation of their bodies and their changing passions. When tragedyinevitably strikes, the formerly close-knit group is irrevocably split. First-time novelist Boren uses a first-person plural voice to tell her taut coming-of-age tale, one marred by obvious symbolism and portentous passages. A well-written work that tries too hard.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780977312726
  • Publisher: Tin House Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2006
  • Series: Tin House New Voice Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 150
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 7.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Lee Boren grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of a large family of six children. Her fiction has appeared in journals and anthologies, including the Florida Review, Night Train, Karamu, Hawaii Pacific Review, Dominion Review, Yemassee, and Epoch. Her nonfiction has appeared in Cream City Review and the Lonely Planet anthology Rite of Passage: Tales of Backpacking 'Round Europe. She currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches literature and creative writing at Rhode Island College. She holds a BA and a PhD in English from the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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Read an Excerpt

oneThe summer we were in peril, Jeanne Macek’s thumb was severed from her hand. It was a useless digit. A single, narrow bone at its center connected it to the protuberance at the base of the “real thumb” on her left hand. Its skin was as wrinkled and pink as a newborn’s. All of the girls in our group adored it. One after another, the four of us, ranging in age from eleven to thirteen, courted Jeanne’s favor for the chance to pet its tender skin. Jeanne admitted she dipped it in Vaseline each night to keep it soft, and we tried this trick with our own unexceptional thumbs, dreaming of the kind of magical transformations we read about in books, but we awoke only to greasy pillowcases and sheets. With such poor results, we accepted the most we could hope for was the chance to care for Jeanne’s thumb. So when Lauren Jankowski received a bottle of Cherry Ice nail polish for her birthday, she didn’t open it but presented it to Jeanne, who rewarded Lauren by allowing her to brush the single stroke it took to coat the thumb’s eraser-size nail. The extra thumb made Jeanne’s real thumb stand out. It worked differently from ours. It even worked differently from the one on Jeanne’s right hand, whose perfection only made us love her deformed hand more. On her “bad hand,” as her mother called it, the big thumb was always bent as if Jeanne were constantly signaling the number four. She couldn’t hold things easily because of her bent thumb, but she had become deft at hooking hair bands into the crook of her stiff joint to pull back her shoulder-length, straw-colored hair. Sometimes she used the heel of her hand against her belly to fasten belt buckles or open jars. Her resourcefulness often impressed us, but we absolutely marveled when she performed more difficult tasks like tying her shoes or braiding her hair. Then her four fingers flew like a concert pianist’s, tangling and contorting, skillful and ugly. Next to hers our hands dangled like wooden spoons from our wrists. Jeanne often made us feel our ungainliness. Even with her bad hand she was the best athlete. Kickball, hopscotch, four square, Jeanne excelled at anything that required coordination, strong legs, and balance. She was a good three inches taller than the rest of us. She swam well and ran fast. Only at grasping games did she have any trouble because of her hand, games like baseball and street hockey. So we rarely played these games and modified them for her when we did. The day Donna’s mother bought her a double-Dutch jump rope, we tied a noose on the end so Jeanne could slip it over her wrist, twine it through her fingers, and turn it to earn her jumps. It never occurred to us that modifying the jump rope -- or any other game’s rules or equipment -- for her was unfair, even when she beat us hands down. We always expected her to be the best, to win any game. Not because of her tiny thumb exactly, not in spite of it either, but because she expected to win. When she won, she treated her thumb like a teammate who had helped her out. That very first time we played double Dutch, Jeanne leapt for what seemed like hours. We switched turners, but eventually we gave up. We complained that our arms were rubber. Wouldn’t she please let us stop? She landed flat on both feet, shrugged okay, and did what she did after every victory -- she rubbed her extra thumb over her lips, not quite kissing it but confirming its presence. At the moment her lips touched the skin, we longed for our own hands to stiffen and turn bad. We contented ourselves with patting her back in congratulations. She accepted our offerings graciously, as she always did. Then she held out her thumb for us each to stroke. We shivered before we touched it, disgusted and thrilled. It was as if we were touching the insides of our lungs, touching a thing that was supposed to remain hidden but had refused. When our turns were over, we squealed and squeezed each other’s arms, Jeanne’s victory now a part of us.It was our love for the thumb that gathered us all on Corinne Stempke’s porch on the first Monday of freedom that summer. It had been an unusually hot June, and we had finally been allowed to shed Holy Family School’s regulation below- the-knee skirts and long-sleeve blouses in favor of light, cotton shorts and T-shirts or tank tops. It was awkward to see our calves and thighs so suddenly bared. Over the winter our legs had developed new curves and sprouted hair that had been hidden beneath kneesocks. We attributed the strangeness of our bodies to months of confinement, confident that all they needed was fresh air, our mothers’ solution to so many things. As we waited for Mrs. Sobczyk to drive down the street in her navy Cadillac, we stretched our legs out onto the cement so the sun could burn all of our past summers into them.Mrs. Sobczyk came without fail on the third Monday of every month. We had been planning an ambush for weeks, ever since Mrs. Sobczyk’s daughter, Elaine, had shown up at school with one of her mother’s Avon samples. Elaine was our age, but we scorned her. She refused to sully her uniform by playing kickball or monkey-bar tag during recess despite an impressive throwing arm that she displayed only during gym class when a grade was at stake. She and her group, pretty girls who giggled and brought shiny-haired dolls to school to try to impress Elaine, crowded in the corner of the playground, squealing whenever the kickball rolled into their circle. Elaine always grabbed the ball away from whichever girl picked it up. Arms extended, she refused to throw it back to the game, forcing someone to jog up to her so she could primly hand it off. But one day when we were kept inside after lunch because of rain, Elaine sashayed through the rows of desks, trailing a glossy envelope of lanolin and aloe lotion. “My mother’s got a whole bag of them,” she said when she saw our rare interest in her. “I can have as many as I want.”Our first thought had been to convince Elaine to bring us samples. Stacey approached her and offered to trade an old Barbie doll that Elaine had once liked. Elaine refused. “I don’t play with dolls anymore,” she said. So Jeanne told Lauren to take a turn. Lauren did as Jeanne directed, threatening to dump her milk on Elaine’s uniform every day until the end of the term if she didn’t bring us some of the samples. Elaine didn’t bother to respond before standing up and striding over to Sister Ruthelia to tell her that Lauren was bothering her, which landed Lauren in detention for two days.That afternoon as we waited for Lauren to be released, Jeanne decided our mistake had been not to approach Elaine as a group. Alone we were vulnerable, she argued. If we had all stood before Elaine, arms linked red-rover style, she wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss us. We nodded. We all knew we felt more comfortable as a group. We had long been known as “the neighborhood girls,” and we were proud that together we had a firmly fixed identity. Our mothers called the five of us a “set.” At school we were a “clique.” During recess or gym, we split up and played with kids outside our group only when a coach forced us, and even then we kept a close eye on each other. Teachers routinely sat us at desks far away from each other to prevent us from talking, but we were experts at passing notes without being caught. “If we stick together,” Jeanne said, “Elaine’s mother won’t be able to turn us down.”We agreed, and when Lauren finally joined us, she agreed too. We walked home that day brushing shoulders, grasping hands, and imagining the force we would be before Elaine’s mother. We decided to gather on Corinne’s porch and lie in wait for Mrs. Sobczyk. Located at the end of the block, Corinne’s house provided the best view of the whole neighborhood -- two streets joined by a curve in the road and a dozen or so nearly identical brick bungalows lined on either side, with barely an arm’s length between them. Lauren’s and Donna’s houses were directly across from Corinne’s, and Stacey’s was only two more down. Jeanne’s house sat dead center of the block, where the street curved. Next to an empty lot, her house was the standout on the block. It was big but old. Victorian in style, its dormers and roof sagged, and its brick foundation had veiny cracks that layers of repair cement had only deepened. The paint had long ago chipped off most of the clapboards and pillars. It had the biggest yard and the biggest porch, but we seldom played there. The grass was sparse and the ground harder than in our yards. There always seemed to be broken bits of tools or nails buried in the soil, ready to cut you if you fell. The hedges and trees had overgrown into grotesque shapes, and the wood of the porch steps and railing gave us splinters. There was an exhausted quality about her house that was so unlike Jeanne herself it was sometimes hard to believe she lived there. “Here she comes,” Jeanne said when the Cadillac turned the corner. She rubbed her thumb over her lips before adding, “Get ready.”Elaine’s mother passed us without waving. She simply coasted to the curb and climbed out of her sleek car, two Gimbel’s shopping bags in either hand. Even if we hadn’t been waiting, it wouldn’t have taken us long to know she was in the neighborhood. Like a skunk’s fear, the astringent scent of her perfume had permeated the neighborhood by the time she’d locked her car door. She wore stockings and a double- breasted wool jacket despite the heat. The heels of her shoes were as high as new pencils, the toes dagger sharp. When we had concocted our plan, it seemed easy. Corinne was good with words and had enthusiastically described the details of how we would surround Mrs. Sobczyk and demand all of the samples we knew she would be handing out with her Avon catalogs. We had practiced our positions: a solid wall, one girl’s foot braced against the girl’s next to her; our arms clenched around each other’s waists. We imagined ourselves a fierce gang. But when the time came to approach Mrs. Sobczyk, not one of us moved. We sprawled over the hot cement of Corrine’s porch, nailed there by the even clicking of Mrs. Sobczyk’s shoes as she walked up the path to the Smolens’ house across the street. “Let’s wait until she gets closer,” Corinne said.“Not too close,” said Lauren, her nose tucked into the crook of her arm. “She stinks.”“But we’re still doing it,” insisted Jeanne. She gave Stacey a hard look, knowing Stacey was usually the first to cave if the pressure was on, but then she pointed at all of us with her extra thumb. “Everyone. It’s the only way it will work.” On sturdy legs, Mrs. Sobczyk climbed the three stairs and stepped onto the Smolens’ porch. The inner door was open, the screen door most likely latched on the inside the same way they were at our own houses. Mrs. Sobczyk didn’t ring the doorbell or shout “Hello!” through the screen as we usually did when calling for each other. She didn’t even say, “Ding-dong, Avon calling!” as the commercials implied she should. Instead she quietly slipped a plastic bag over the door’s handle and turned quickly, as if she feared connecting the voices that whispered orders into the phone for True Red lipstick or Midnight Plum nail polish with the women carrying armfuls of laundry or tiptoeing around sticky children or a third-shift husband stretched out on the couch. We watched her play the same gun-and-run game with her samples at every house on the block, except the one belonging to the old widower Ivan, who lived on the far side of Jeanne’s house, behind a wall of lilac bushes, and who would never buy Avon. She skipped his house, and we waited to see if she would skip Jeanne’s door too, assuming she knew, as we all did, that Jeanne’s mother could never afford to order from her. We were relieved when she climbed the Maceks’ steps. “Just in case,” we imagined her thinking. We understood then that she thought of our mothers less as customers and more as fish in a pond that had to be thrown minnows if they were ever going to be hooked. But she didn’t let her eyes linger on any spot too long, as if once she actually allowed herself to look, she wouldn’t be able to pry her gaze away from the traffic accidents she imagined our mothers’ lives to be.“Look at her,” Corinne said softly. She was impressive. The elegant whip of her full thighs and fleshy arms as she zipped up and down the porches made us aware of the boniness of our elbows and knees. She crossed the street and made her way toward us, and we shifted uncomfortably, feeling the hardness of the cement against our buttocks and the brick against our backs. She would never sit on the ground the way we were. She was the epitome of adulthood, both perfect and grotesque. The features of her face were flattened out by heavy pancake makeup and redrawn with streaks of red blusher, lipstick, and eyebrow pencil. Inside her wool jacket, her breasts were a mass of flesh it was inconceivable our own bodies would one day develop. By the time she reached the bottom of Corinne’s walk, we were no longer sure she was human. We half believed the tight curls of her orange-tinted hair might spring at us like snakes.Without waving or even glancing at us, she started up the walk. When she reached us, her good breeding kept her from ignoring us completely. Like a military man, she stopped before us, slid her heels and toes together, and waited for us to scramble aside, never considering stepping around us. “Hello, girls,” she said, nodding curtly, her gaze skimming over us like a pebble over the surface of Lake Michigan. We mumbled vague hellos back. With her good hand Jeanne hid her spare thumb while the rest of us shifted uneasily. Lauren’s gaze lingered on Mrs. Sobczyk’s fleshy calf, and she wrapped her fingers around her own calf as if to measure the difference. Donna and Corinne elbowed each other, sniffing giggles that they tried to hide. After an especially loud one, Stacey kicked Donna’s foot and then Corinne’s, which only made them giggle more. Mrs. Sobczyk waited silently, a sour, impatient expression on her face. Then one by one we moved aside to let her pass.Our breeding didn’t keep us from staring as she slid the plastic bag over the door handle and swung around, dipping her head once in good-bye and marching past us again. As she returned to her car, a balled-up tissue dropped from her sleeve, but the metronome of her heels continued uninterrupted. We gawked at the pink tissue, as shocked as if a kidney or eyeball had landed on the cement. Surely a tissue from her was different than the ones we used on our own noses. Our amazement was so great, we neither picked up the tissue nor mentioned it, giving it a wide berth as we ambled across the yard to track her more closely. We watched her toss the empty Gimbel’s bags onto the passenger side of the Cadillac, then sink back into the driver’s seat, pausing just long enough for her body to slacken from heat or exhaustion or despair, we would never know which, before straightening up, starting the engine, and navigating the Cadillac around the corner.“I saw her sweat,” Donna said. “It rolled right down her neck.”We nodded, but we didn’t really believe it. It seemed impossible that such a woman could sweat the way we did when cooking or cleaning or working in the vegetable gardens in our backyards.We waited until the car was out of sight. Then, as if this had been our plan all along, Jeanne directed us to sneak up to the porches and slide the tiny sample envelopes out of the bags dangling from the screen doors. The slim packets felt smooth in our hands. The delicate violets and roses imprinted on their labels promised luxurious, womanly lives. Careful not to squeeze too tightly, we turned over all of the packets to Jeanne, who lifted her extra thumb in appreciation and promised to stash them beneath her heaviest winter sweaters, where her mother was unlikely to look for months.
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