The American Girl

The American Girl

by Monika Fagerholm


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In 1969, a young girl makes a trip from Coney Island to the swampy coastland on the rural outskirts of Helsinki, Finland. There, her death will immediately become part of local mythology, furnishing boys and girls with fodder for endless romantic imaginings. Everyone who lives near the swamp dreams about Eddie de Wire, the lost American girl. . . . For both Sandra and Doris, two lonely, dreaming girls abandoned in different ways by their parents, this myth will propel them into their coming-of-age through mischievous role-playing games of love and death, in search of hidden secrets, the mysteries of the swamp, and the truth behind Eddie’s death. The girls construct their own world, their own language, and their own rules. But playing adult games has adult consequences, and what begins as two girls just striking matches leads to an inferno that threatens to consume them and tear their friendship apart.

Crime mystery and gothic saga, social study and chronicle of the late sixties and early seventies, a portrait of the psyche of young girls on the cusp of sexual awakening, The American Girl is a bewitching glimpse of the human capacity for survival and for self-inflicted wounds. Fagerholm is a modern-day heir to the William Faulkner heritage of family tragedy, with a highly musical and literary prose style that is rich with wit and literary allusions. The American Girl will teach you the meaning of trust as you give yourself entirely to the original storytelling style of Monika Fagerholm.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590513040
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 02/16/2010
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Monika Fagerholm was born in 1961 and belongs to the Swedish-speaking community in Finland. Her much-praised first novel, Wonderful Women by the Sea, became one of the most widely translated Scandinavian literary novels of the mid-nineties. Two years later, it was made into a motion picture. In 1998, it was followed by the cult novel Diva, which won the Swedish Literature Society Award and Nyland’s Art Award. Her third novel, The American Girl, became a number-one best seller and won the premier literary award in Sweden, the August Prize, as well as the Aniara Prize and the Gothenburg Post Award.

Katarina E.Tucker was born in the United States and raised bilingually with English and Swedish. She holds a doctorate in Scandinavian Literature from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. In 2003, she won the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Translation Prize for her translation of Sven Delblanc’s Jerusalem’s Night. After dividing her time between Europe and North America, she now resides in the Netherlands.

Read an Excerpt

It happened in The District, at Bule Marsh. Eddie’s death. She was lying at the bottom of the marsh. Her hair was standing out around her head in thick, long strands like octopus tentacles. Her eyes and mouth were wide open. He saw her from where he was standing on Lore Cliff, staring straight down into the water. He saw the scream coming out of her open mouth, the scream which could not be heard. He looked into her eyes, they were empty. Fish were swimming in and out of them and into her body’s other cavities. But later, when some time had passed.
   He never stopped imagining it. 
   That she had been sucked down into the marsh like into the Bermuda Triangle.
   Now she was lying there and was unreachable, a distance of about thirty feet, visible only to him, in the dark and murky water.
   She, Edwina de Wire, Eddie. The American girl. As she was called in The District.
And he was Bengt. Thirteen years old in August of 1969 when everything happened. Eddie, she was nineteen. Edwina de Wire. It was strange. Later when he saw her name in the papers it was as if it was not her at all. 
   “I’m a strange bird, Bengt. Are you too?” 
   ”Nobody knew my rose of the world but me.”
   She had talked that way, using peculiar words. She had been a stranger there, in The District.
   The American girl. And he, he had loved her.
There was a morning after night, a night when he had not been able to sleep. At daybreak he ran through the forest over the field over the meadow past the cousin’s house, the two decayed ramshackle barns and the red cottage where his sisters, Rita and Solveig lived. He jumped over three deep ditches and got to the outbuilding by the border of Lindström’s land.
   He walked into the outbuilding. The first thing he saw were the feet. They were hanging in the air. Bare feet, the soles gray and dirty. And lifeless. They were Björn’s feet, Björn’s body. Cousin Björn’s. And he was also only nineteen years old that same year, when he died by his own hand.
They had been a threesome: Eddie, Bencku, Björn. Now it was only him, Bencku. He was left alone.
And so, he stood and screamed out into the wild dazzling nature of late summer, so quiet, so green. He screamed at the sun which had just disappeared behind a blue cover of clouds. At a dull, calm summer rain cautiously starting. Drip-drip-drip, in an otherwise total and ghostly calm. But Bencku screamed. Screamed and screamed, even though he suddenly did not have a voice.
   He became mute for long periods of time. Thoroughly mute: he had not spoken that much before, but now he was not going to say anything at all. According to the diagnosis, a clinical muteness brought on by a state of shock. As a result of everything that had happened during the night.
Another child was also moving around in The District then. She was there at all possible and impossible times of day, in every place, everywhere. It was Doris, the marsh kid. Doris Flinkenberg who did not have a real home then despite the fact that she was maybe only eight or nine years old.
   It was Doris who said she had heard the scream at the outbuilding by the border of Lindström’s land.
   “It sounded like a stuck lamb or the way only someone like Bencku sounds like,” she said to the cousin’s mama in the cousin’s kitchen in the cousin’s house where she gradually, after Björn’s death, would become a daughter herself, in her own right.
   “It’s called a pig,” the cousin’s mama corrected her.  “To squeal like a stuck pig.”
   “But I mean lamb,” Doris would protest. “Because that’s what Bencku sounds like when he screams. Like one of those lambs you feel sorry for. A sacrificial lamb.”
Doris Flinkenberg with her very own way of expressing herself. You did not always know if she was serious or if she was playing a game. And if it was a game, in that case, what kind?
   “One man’s death is another man’s breath,” Doris Flinkenberg sighed in the cousin’s kitchen, so delighted over finally having her own home, a real one. Only someone like Doris Flinkenberg could say “One man’s death is another man’s breath” in such a way that it did not sound cynical, but actually, almost normal. 
   “Now, now, now.” The cousin’s mama said to Doris nevertheless, “What are you actually saying?” But there was still something soft in her voice,  in a calm and settled way. Because it was Doris who had come to the cousin’s house and given the cousin’s mama her life and all her hopes back after the death of  Björn, her darling boy.
   But who could have imagined then that only a few years later Doris would be dead as well.
It happened in The District, at Bule Marsh, death’s spell at a young age. It was a Saturday in the month of November. Dusk slowly transformed into darkness and Doris Flinkenberg, sixteen years old, wandered through the woods on the familiar path down to Bule Marsh. With quick and determined steps. The growing darkness did not bother her, her eyes had time to get used to it and the path was familiar to her, almost too familiar.
   And it was Doris Night, or was it Doris Day, or was it the Marsh Queen or one of the many other identities in the many games she had already had time to play in her life? You did not know. But maybe it was not important anymore.
   Because Doris Flinkenberg, she had the pistol in her pocket. It was a real Colt, certainly antique, but in working condition nonetheless. The only thing of value that Rita and Solveig had ever inherited from anyone: a distant ancestor who, according to rumors, had bought it in 1902 at the big department store in the city by the sea.
    Afterwards, when Doris was dead, Rita would swear she did not know how the pistol, which was stored, hidden away in a specific spot in hers and Solveig’s cottage, had gotten into the hands of Doris Flinkenberg.  
   It would not be a complete lie, but also not entirely true.
Doris came to Bule Marsh and she walked up Lore Cliff. She stood there and counted to ten. She counted to eleven, twelve and fourteen too, and to sixteen, before she had gathered enough courage to raise the pistol’s barrel to her temple and pull the trigger.
   She had already stopped thinking, but her emotions, they swelled in her head and her entire body, everywhere.
   Doris Flinkenberg wearing the Loneliness&Fear shirt.  Old and worn now. A real cleaning rag, that was what it had become by this time.
   But anyway, in the space between two numbers the resolution had taken hold of Doris Flinkenberg anew. And she just raised the barrel of the pistol to her temple, and, click, she pulled the trigger. But first she shut her eyes and screamed. Screamed in order to drown herself out, to drown out her fear, and the shot itself, which she would not hear anymore, so that was even more absurd.
   Shots, I think I hear shots.
   It echoed in the woods, everywhere.
It was Rita who heard the shot first. She was in the red cottage about a third of a mile from Bule Marsh with her sister Solveig. And it was strange, as soon as she heard the shot she knew exactly what had happened. She tore her jacket from the wall and ran out, through the woods to the marsh with Solveig after her. But it was too late.
Doris was already dead as a rock when Rita made it to Lore Cliff. She was lying on her stomach, with her head and hair hanging down over the dark water. In blood. And Rita lost it. She tore and pulled at the dead and still warm body. She tried to lift Doris up, and how absurd was that, to carry her.
   Carry Doris over troubled water. 
   Solveig had to do everything in her power to try and calm Rita down.  And suddenly the woods were filled with people. Doctors, police officers, ambulances.
   But. Doris Night and Sandra Day.
   In one of their games.
   They had been two actually. Sandra and Doris, two.
   Doris Day&Sandra Night. That was the other girl, she had also had many names which they made up during their games. Games which had been played with the best friend, the only friend, the only only only, Doris Flinkenberg, at the bottom of the swimming pool without water, so far. It was Sandra, she was bedridden for weeks after Doris’s death, in a four-poster bed in the house in the darker part of the woods that was her home. She lay with her face turned toward the wall, knees bent and pulled up toward her stomach. She had a fever.
   A stained, worn nylon t-shirt under the big pillow. “Loneliness&Fear”: the other copy of the only two in the history of the world. She squeezed the shirt so hard her knuckles turned white.
   If she closed her eyes she saw blood everywhere. She was in the Blood Woods, wandering there in the darkness, confused, like a blind person.
   Sandra and Doris: it had been the two of them, they had been best friends.
   And, only Sandra Wärn out of everyone knew this: Sister Night&Sister Day. It was a game they had played. And in just this game she had been the girl who had drowned in Bule Marsh many years ago. She who was called Eddie de Wire. Her, the American girl.
   The game had another name as well. It had been called The Mystery with the American Girl.
   And it had its own song. The Eddie song.
   Look mom, they’ve destroyed my song.
   And all the words and peculiar sayings had also belonged to the game.
   “I’m a strange bird, are you too?”
   “The heart is a heartless hunter.”
   “Nobody knew my rose of the world but me.”
   But, shadow meets shadow. There, in the darkness, those weeks when Sandra did not leave her room, it happened sometimes that she crawled out of bed and stood by the window and looked out. Looked out over the muddy landscape out there, over the familiar, low-lying marsh, over the clump of reeds...but more than anything toward the grove off to the side. That was the direction in which her gaze was drawn. That is where he was usually standing.
   And he was standing there now, looking at her. Her behind the curtains in the room with the lights out. Him out there. They stood there across from each other, and stared at each other.
   One of them was the boy, and he was Bengt. Quite a bit older now. The other was the girl, Sandra Wärn. Who was the same age as Doris had been when she died, sixteen years old.
2008, The Winter Garden. Johanna is walking in The Winter Garden. And everything is still there, these many years later.
   In Rita’s Winter Garden, a park, a world all by itself. A defined space for entertaining, recreation, enchantment.
   A world in and of itself, for games, also adult games.
   But at the same time it is an intricate combination of public and private,  conventional and normal, but also the secret, forbidden.
   Because there are things in The Winter Garden you do not talk about, things you only imagine. Underground and above. Secret rooms, a labyrinth.
   You can walk down there and experience almost anything.
   All of the old things, in their own way. The District and its history are also in The Winter Garden. Like pictures on the walls, names and words, music.
   Carry Doris over troubled water.
   Death’s spell at a young age.
   Nobody knew my rose of the world but me.
   I walked out one evening, out into a grove so green.
   Shots, I think I hear shots. 
   Look mom, they’ve destroyed my song.
   In the middle of The Winter Garden there is Kapu Kai, the forbidden seas.
   Doris Night. And Sandra Day.

Reading Group Guide

1. The structure of The American Girl is not a conventional linear narrative. The author forces the reader to assemble a coherent story from impressions, occasional historical facts, the characters' play-acting, mysterious clues, interior monologues, and the rhythm of her prose. This technique, which mirrors real life, can be frustrating or liberating. Which did you find it? Discuss the ways this technique hinders understanding the characters' actions, and the ways it deepens our understanding their inner lives.

2. Eddie de Wire—the American Girl—is a Swedish-speaking Finn who falls for the early culture of punk rock while traveling around the United States in the late 1960s. The author makes many references to the music of that era, liberally sprinkled throughout the text, showing that popular music is terribly important for adolescents as they establish their identities. Discuss the ways in which the musical references such as "What Have They Done to My Song, Ma" help develop Eddie's character in the novel.

3. On page two of the novel, we are told that Eddie de Wire was drowned in a marsh. When do we find out how she died and whether she was murdered or not? Were you surprised to learn what really happened or had the author given you enough clues such that the revelation grew organically from all that had come before? When did you suspect the truth?

4. Much of the action in the novel is seen through the eyes of Sandra and Doris, the two teen-age girls who construct their own fantasy narrative based on the mystery of Eddie de Wire's death and the supposed involvement of all the inhabitants of their seaside community, even as they explore the sexual limits of their summer friendship. Is their view of Eddie's life and death true? What about their view of their parents and their parents' adult friends—even if the facts are false, is the impression "true"? Can you cite other instances in which the stories people make up are truer than straight reportage?

5. In the novel we detect a constant tension between the year-round inhabitants of the District (who are lower working class) versus the nouveau riche summer people. How does the author use Doris Flinkenberg's attempt to move between these two worlds to shed light on the struggle between classes?

6. Women's liberation was just beginning to become an issue during the period the main action of the novel takes place. Free of being typecast as second-class citizens, women were then challenged to establish their own identities, and independence. The book is filled with many female characters, from teen-age girls to the Islander's sex kittens, from wives and aunts to professional women and academics, from rich girls to impoverished and grieving mothers, seemingly illustrating the whole spectrum of the gender's possible lives. Name five major female characters and describe how each one displays a separate aspect of modern womanhood.

7. Some of the characters have more than one name; for example, Bengt is also called Bencku. Some of the characters have the same name: both Sandra and Doris are called The Marsh Queen. And some of the characters are only known by their nickname, like The Black Sheep. The author uses this technique to simulate the way we come by knowledge in real life, having to tease out "who did what to whom" when different witnesses use different names to refer to the same people. Make a list of all the names that Doris and Sandra use in referring to themselves and others. How many names are you known by?

8. Can you identify "the City by the Sea"? A clue: the novel alludes to an international summit meeting that took place there in the mid-1970s.What do you know about the culture of Finland and the various communities that comprise its population?

9. John Gardner once commented that there are only two basic plot-lines out of which all narratives are woven: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In The American Girl, who goes on a journey? And who is a stranger that comes to town (other than Eddie de Wire)?

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