An unenthusiastic Southern debutante copes with the cruelties of postcollege New York life in Crouch's amusing debut. Sarah Walters is neither a misfit nor the queen of the Camellia Society cotillion scene growing up in Charleston, S.C. But when she and her fellow Camellias try to make a life in New York City, they find themselves coping in unexpectedly dangerous ways-from standard substance addictions to Sarah's fixation on preppy ex-boyfriend Max, a smooth and sadistic child of wealth. While the formula of young women in the big city seems destined for cliché, Crouch subverts most expectations; Sarah almost purposely misses an opportunity for happiness and stability with the gentle lover she met in Europe, and her ploy to ignite sparks with a college friend goes painfully awry. When Sarah goes back to Charleston and faces a perhaps too over-the-top family crisis (it involves suicide and lesbianism), the reader's left with the hope that the worst is over. Though this feels almost like a collection-each chapter its own story with its own narrative technique-Crouch's portrayal of a young woman's self-sabotage and the pitfalls facing young women in a cold world is wise, wry and heartbreaking. (Apr.)Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Girls in Trucksby Katie Crouch
Sarah Walters, the narrator of GIRLS IN TRUCKS, is a reluctant Camellia Society debutante. She has always felt ill-fitted to the rococo ways of Southern womanhood and family, and is anxious to shake the bonds of her youth. Still, she follows the traditional path laid out for her. This is Charleston, and in this beautiful, dark, segregated town, established rules and… See more details below
Sarah Walters, the narrator of GIRLS IN TRUCKS, is a reluctant Camellia Society debutante. She has always felt ill-fitted to the rococo ways of Southern womanhood and family, and is anxious to shake the bonds of her youth. Still, she follows the traditional path laid out for her. This is Charleston, and in this beautiful, dark, segregated town, established rules and manners mean everything.
But as Sarah grows older, she finds that her Camellia lessons fail her, particularly as she goes to college, moves North, and navigates love and life in New York. There, Sarah and her group of displaced deb sisters try to define themselves within the realities of modern life. Heartbreak, addiction, disappointing jobs and death fail to live up to the hazy, happy future promised to them by their Camellia mothers and sisters.
When some unexpected bumps in the road--an unplanned birth, a family death--lead Sarah back home, she's forced to take another long look at the fading empire of her youth. It takes a strange turn of events to finally ground Sarah enough to make some serious choices. And only then does she realize that as much as she tried to deny it, where she comes from will always affect where she ends up. The motto of her girlhood cotillion society, "Once a Camellia, always a Camellia," may turn out to have more wisdom and pull to it than she ever could have guessed.
Crouch's debut novel-in-linked-stories chronicles the life of Charleston debutante Sarah Walters from her learning the fox trot in grade school to her finding out family secrets in her mid-thirties. The narrative is as raw, frank, and underdeveloped as the characters within, each of whom makes decisions that are difficult to understand. For example, when Sarah's relationship with an abusive man ends and he starts dating someone else months later, she stalks him. She also plunges into excessive alcohol and drug use, which only further clouds her judgment. Unfortunately, Sarah does not have any Southern "sisters" in whom she can confide, as she and her "Camellias" talk more out of Camellia Society obligation than from any actual affinity; they, too, struggle with unhealthy relationships and addictions. In the end, Crouch's portrait of a lady lacks a distinct Southern charm and does not show contemporary women in a positive light. Stylistically, the book resembles Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but the unexpectedly abrupt ending may confuse readers and leave them wanting more. For larger fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/07.]
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Read an ExcerptGirls in Trucks
By Katie Crouch Little, Brown and Company
Copyright © 2008 Katie Crouch
All right reserved.
A Debutante's Code to Dying
If you are white, are a girl or boy between the ages of nine and twelve, and, according to a certain committee of mothers, are good enough to associate with Charleston's other good girls and boys, then Wednesday night is a busy night for you. Wednesday night, from four until seven in the evening, is reserved for Cotillion Training School, or, as it is called casually among the students and their families, dancing school. The number of students is severely limited. Due to demand, children are usually signed up shortly after they are born.
The mainstay of the school is the Fox Trot, although other, more modern dances are also taught after the classics have been learned. The Lindy Hop. The Cha-Cha. The Shag is not taught, as, according to Miss Taylor, the school's headmistress, it is common. But naturally, dancing is not all the children learn at Cotillion Training School. At Miss Taylor's school, children are trained how to greet adults properly, how to receive refreshments gracefully, and how not to eat everything on their plate. In a society that is doing its best to leave formality behind, this program works to undo modern attitudes of brashness, to teach children manners, to arm students with the social tools they will need throughouttheir adult lives!
My name is Sarah Walters, and what I knew was that Cotillion meant sweat. It meant sticky thighs in saggy stockings. It meant soupy nights in the South Carolina Society Hall, where you were required to wear white gloves. My mother told me that I was wearing the gloves to show I was a lady, but after the first dance, I realized that the gloves also were about perspiration, as they instantly became soaked from the wet palms of boys as we step-ball-stepped to the tinny record player.
I went to Cotillion Training School for the same reason my friends went: my mother wanted me to. This was important to her, the same way it was important to have a picture of her great-great-grandfather dressed in Confederate gray over the sideboard and for us not to be seen in Dad's truck when we were in town. She is a member of the Camellia Society, founded in the 1820s by some Charleston ladies. You have to be born into it to be a member. The main purpose of the club was originally musical enjoyment, but after a few years the Camellias gave up that pretense and stood behind what it really was: an organization whose purpose was to gather, socialize with people of similar interests, and-most important-prepare their daughters for marriage to a decent man.
I never understood the Camellia Society, really. I went to the meetings and I ate the cake. I listened to the lectures given by the Mama Camellias on various topics: the importance of a consistently neat appearance, why one must not be seen out socially too often, the tastefulness of floral arrangements, how to sit properly in a chair. And, if the words themselves seemed silly, the weight they were given by the women in the room earned our respectful silence. We knew that as long as we listened, we were Camellias, and as long as we were Camellias, we were protected. The only question left unanswered was, from what?
Girls, at Cotillion Training School, you will learn the following:
The Waltz The Fox Trot The Lindy Hop The Rumba The Cha-Cha
Girls, you will not, under any circumstances, be taught the Shag. Don't ask about the Shag. The Shag is a common dance. You don't Shag now, you won't Shag later. Accept it. Live with it. Now go on, put on those white gloves and smile.
People say that Charleston's social structure is complex, but really, everything can pretty much be explained by the fourthgrade Cotillion line.
The future debutantes, the ones with balls already planned for certain years, stood in front. The Camellias were one of the oldest societies, so we were first. Behind us were the Magnolias (as old as us but not as famous), the Stonelochs (secretive, a little weird), and the Cotillion Society (only two generations old, so not really taken seriously yet). The next layer of the line was made up of girls whose parents had been in Charleston for a while-a generation or two-but who weren't going to be debutantes. Maybe their parents were liberal, or perhaps their father had married someone from out of state. Those girls usually stood in the middle and appeared comfortable and happy, but a little confused about why they were there.
Then there were the new money girls. I felt most sorry for them. These were daughters of parents who had recently moved to Charleston and who were trying to buy their way in. You could tell the new money girls from us by their clothes. Girls who belonged wore hand- me- downs from other debs, sisters, or family friends. New money girls had new dresses just for Cotillion. Sometimes, if their mothers were truly clueless, they had lace gloves. Girls with lace gloves received no mercy. Miss Taylor would glare at their hands disapprovingly; the other girls would stare and giggle. Plus, they were definitely, for the rest of the year and probably forever, going to be stuck at the back of the line.
I didn't mind Cotillion Training School too much. It was fun to go to the city on a weeknight to hang out with Bitsy, Charlotte, and Annie. Charlotte? wild and inappropriate, the daughter of divorced parents? was the only one I really liked, but we were all Camellias, so we formed a sort of alliance. Each Wednesday night, before letting me out of the car, my mother would look me over sharply, spit on her finger, and rub my cheeks. Then she'd leave, and the Camellias and I would link arms and climb the marble steps of the dance hall together. We'd stand in line across from the boys, giggling, whispering, and twitching nervously at what was ahead: the inevitable moment when we'd have to release one another, reach out across the room, and ask, cheeks on fire, to be touched.
Girls, let's talk about boys. I know this is a confusing time for all of you. You may have strange feelings. You may sense funny things happening to your body. We all know, for instance, that Annie is getting a little bigger around the chest already. We can speak privately about that, one- on- one. I have a pamphlet. You see, you are blooming, and it makes the boys act silly. They are like bees, buzzing around you, and it is your job not to taunt them, girls. Do not taunt the bees, girls. Do not taunt the bees.
At Cotillion Training School, you were not allowed to dance with your cousin. It was a rule, the same way it was a rule that you had to wear gloves, and that the boys moved clockwise in the dance circle, and that you had to look the chaperones in the eye when you told them good night. Miss Taylor explained that it was unnatural to dance with your cousin, or brother, or anyone in your family before you were sixteen.
"What is she afraid of?" Bitsy asked me. "I like dancing with my brother." Bitsy's older brother was a star dancer. At her house, they danced all the time. He'd whirl her around, doing advanced steps, even lifting her in the air sometimes and flipping her over his head. He had graduated from Cotillion already but still got paid ten dollars each Wednesday to assist Miss Taylor with class.
"She thinks that y'all will hump," Charlotte said. "In the Ladies' Lounge."
"That's perverted," Bitsy said, shuddering slightly. "You're perverted."
Personally, I liked this rule. I didn't have a brother, but I did have a cousin, and I wouldn't have danced with him anyway, not if you'd zapped me in a thunderstorm with an electric cattle prod.
Ted Wheeler was my mother's first cousin's son. When we were little, we played together. There is a picture of us on the beach, and another one of us naked with a flock of yellow plastic ducks in a tub. Ted was a very good dancer and won the silver dollar for Fox Trotter of the Year three times. Bitsy and Annie were a little in awe of him. It was only a dollar, but still, it was a big deal, honorwise.
"Do you think Ted would pick me as his partner at Cotillion graduation?" Bitsy asked one night while we hung out on the stairs, waiting for my mother. "I really want a silver dollar."
"Sure," I said. Bitsy was pretty. She was probably the prettiest girl in dancing school, with silky hair that never got messy, even at a slumber party, and huge blue eyes. Annie and Charlotte were pretty too, but Charlotte was dark, and Annie was fat-she already had breasts as big as my mother's, and her arms swelled sweetly against the elastic puffed sleeves of her dresses. As for me, I coasted by. I wasn't too fat or too thin. I had braces and freckles and straight brown hair that crackled with electricity in a way that I liked when I brushed it in winter. Still, next to Bitsy, I was nothing. So of course Ted Wheeler would dance with Bitsy. It was sort of silly that she was even asking the question. Not that I approved, though; Ted Wheeler was no one that Bitsy should want to dance with. I knew that she could take care of herself, but Ted was mean. His soul was as black as summer tar.
"You don't want to dance with Ted, Bitsy," I said. "He's evil."
Bitsy shrugged. "I guess. He seems OK."
She was wrong, though. After that tub picture was snapped, Ted Wheeler tried to drown me. Once, I had to get stitches because he hit me on the head with a Tonka Truck. Ted's father had left Cousin Cindy for a lady who wore tennis skirts, but it was my opinion that he probably also left because of Ted Wheeler. Ted was bad, even when he was a baby, and by the time we got to Cotillion Training School, he was worse. He brought in a BB gun and shot the girl with Down syndrome. He called the kid with the birthmark Freak Face. Me, he hated the most. He pinched me and punched me and told me I was ugly. One night, right in front of everyone, he shoved me down the grand stairway, and when I hit bottom, bruised and breathless, he ran down after me and pulled my hair while pretending to help me up.
"You're ugly," he hissed in my ear.
"I hate you," I said back. I told everyone that I hated Ted. Bitsy, Annie, my teachers, my parents.
"You cannot hate Ted Wheeler," my mother said patiently. "He is my cousin Cindy's son."
"But I do," I said. I didn't like the way these feelings made me act, but the fact was, Ted Wheeler was horrible and I hated him. I knew I was right. It was my own personal constant. Another rule to live by.
Step-ball-step Step-ball-step SHIFT WEIGHT Step-ball-step Step-ball-step SHIFT WEIGHT
From what I could tell, the boys did not have the same silent rules about lining up as we did. They stood together in a huffing, snorting jumble, popping Chinese noisemakers and, on more hectic nights, setting off smoke bombs. After the first few Wednesdays, I didn't spend time trying to understand who on the boys' side sat where. In grade school, boys are not something to analyze. They are, as a collective, a thing to be survived.
A few weeks after Ted Wheeler threw me down the stairs, though, it finally became clear that I had to fight back. It wasn't about just me anymore. This time, he went for Annie.
It was raining that Wednesday. Rainy nights at Cotillion Training School are especially unpleasant, because your hair frizzes and the already hot hallway is blanketed in a swampy adolescent haze. Charlotte ? whom Ted also hated but also slightly feared ? was sick that night, leaving us open for an attack. It was hot, so Annie's face was particularly flushed. A little line of sweat trickled down her cheek. Ted made his way over through the crowd. I had developed a radar for Ted as a self-protection device practically since birth, so I saw him coming right away. Instinctively, I hunched my shoulders.
Ted smiled at me sweetly, so I relaxed a little. It seemed that he wasn't aiming for me. Maybe he was coming to talk to Bitsy? That would make sense, because all the boys did. She must have thought the same because she smiled, cocking her head expectantly, then frowned in confusion as Ted passed her and proceeded to sink his finger deep into Annie's plentiful stomach flesh.
"Moooo!" Ted yelled, causing the crowd around us to titter nervously. Even Bitsy giggled for a second. "The cow says moooooooooooooo."
I looked at Annie's face, which was red with horror.
"Shut up, Ted," I said, shoving him. He shoved me back harder, then walked away, still laughing. Annie's eyes were brimming with tears.
"I can't help it," she said. "I even did the Jane Fonda video today."
Bitsy and I were quiet. I was too angry to talk, and Bitsy was not great at talking during times like these. Still, through the first half of class, I plotted. I waited until the lesson was half over, then I pulled Bitsy aside in the brownie-and-cola line.
"You know what?" I whispered to her. "Ted Wheeler has three nipples."
Bitsy's eyes widened. She loved secrets and could be relied upon to keep them for about two minutes. "Really?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "And one time, I saw Ted Wheeler hump his own cat."
"That's so perverted!" she said. "What kind of cat?"
"White," I said, my mind racing wildly. "Its name was Mittens."
"I don't believe you," Bitsy said, looking over at Ted.
"I'm his cousin," I said. "I know."
In the time it took to consume three brownies and a Sprite, Bitsy had asked Ted about his third nipple. He stared at me from across the waxed dance floor, eyes narrowed. Recalling the pain of my head smacking against the stairs, I felt the fearful urge to vomit. But he said nothing to me, and when class ended, I smiled at Annie and made my way to the coat line.
Annie and made my way to the coat line. There, in the unsupervised vacuum that was the dark, dusty place behind the stairs, Ted Wheeler and three other boys grabbed me. They pulled me into an even darker corner and held me down as I fought. Bitsy and Annie were already outside, but other girls were watching-I remember shiny blue and yellow dresses scattering like crows in buckshot. Bitsy's brother put his hand over my mouth. Ted Wheeler shoved his hand up my dress. He yanked at my tights and pulled my dress up. They had covered my eyes, but I could hear laughing, could feel groping and poking by something cold.
"She's so ugly," Ted Wheeler said. "She smells like a dog."
I fought. I kicked. I scratched. I bit, smelled chicken, tasted flesh. Someone yelped in pain, and they let me up, and I heard a clatter, saw a Sprite bottle roll across the floor.
I stood up and smoothed my dress down. Bitsy's brother's hand was bleeding. I didn't cry, but still, something was flooding in me. "You're going to die, Ted Wheeler," I said.
A flash of fear crossed Ted Wheeler's face, quick as a mullet. The other boys backed away. Bitsy's brother ran.
"That's right," I said. "Ted Wheeler, you're going to die and burn in hell."
He stared at me for a moment before doubling over cruelly into a laugh. Then, Ted Wheeler drew his head back and spat on me.
Cotillion Training School ends in seventh grade. Our debutante ball isn't until after high school, so for the in-between years, you sort of forget you're a Camellia. There's no more Fox Trotting, and other than a committee meeting at Christmas, the Mama Camellias leave you alone.
The Camellias parted ways after dancing school. Charlotte and I stayed best friends, but Bitsy, Annie, and I drifted apart once the Cotillion glue loosened. The same social hierarchy no longer seemed to apply; instead of family status, popularity was based on traditional factors, like looks and sports skills. We were still Camellia sisters, but Bitsy didn't always like to be seen with people like Annie and Charlotte and me. She now existed in the unattainable girl-with-older-surfer-boyfriends group, while Charlotte hung with the stoners and Annie got fatter and sank into the giggly choir-girl circle. I spent most of my time in the school newspaper office. While I couldn't control anything that went on with boys or who liked me at school, I could at least report on them in the "anonymous" weekly social column, and when feeling especially powerful, I could put my name next to protests of burning injustices, such as the lack of vegetarian options in the cafeteria. This was not seen as particularly cool by anyone except Charlotte and the few pale boys I was friends with. Still, I had a place to go at lunch, which, in high school, is pretty much all you need.
Ted Wheeler went away to boarding school, so I barely ever had to see him. My mother didn't do much with Cousin Cindy anyway. Cindy had turned into a sort of sad cousin, living in her big alimony house on Broad Street. She had been lovely when she was married to Ted's dad, but now, my mother observed, she was getting dumpy. It is the duty of the Camellia to observe. She does not insult directly, but instead sandwiches her blows between compliments drizzled in honey.
Excerpted from Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch Copyright © 2008 by Katie Crouch. Excerpted by permission.
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