Like Harriet Tubman feeling the moss on the north side of trees to guide her in her flight out of slavery, the predominantly poor, black characters in the eight stories in Ferrell's debut collection move according to a sort of blind reckoning. Searching for signs, acting on instinct, they look desperately for someone or something to fill in their blanks, proceeding with caution through a dangerous, pitiless world. "Am I going to get a chance to kill myself, or will I just be buried alive?" a teenage father-to-be wonders bitterly in "Can You Say My Name?" "It's never-ending, never-stopping," says a weary 14-year-old boy charged with caring for all the younger children in his household in "Proper Library": "Because your life is spent on feeding them and you never stop thinking about where the food is going to come from." In the powerful title story, a young mother with AIDS retraces her life to the days before she knew she was HIV-positive. "I'm just a mortal woman," she says, "nothing but dust on a meaty frame." While hope is in short supply for many of Ferrell's characters, her poignant and often poetic language shines brightly, illuminating a harsh world. (June) FYI: "Proper Library" was included in The Best American Short Stories 1994.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The eight stories in this debut collection, mostly focusing on girls in the 'hood, mingle a welcome touch of poetry with rough urban realism.
The familiar underclass pathologies surface in Ferrell's fiction: families with absent fathers; incest; domestic violence; and, most importantly, teenage pregnancy. More than half of these first-person narratives are in the voice of girls who hope to escape the casual horrors of the streets (in the South Bronx) and somehow imagine a baby as their means to happiness. Seldom do the fathers care beyond the status symbol of their potency. In the title story, a young mother records a backwards diary from the moment she discovered her stepfather had infected her with HIV. In "Can You Say My Name?," a pregnant teenager, full of delusional plans for her future, rejects real love for the abusive father of her child, and seems to find an erotic charge in her violent relations with him. "Country of the Spread Out God" alternates the voices of two foster siblings, one pregnant by the other, both rejected by the Jamaican aunt who raised them. The girlish boy in "Proper Library" avoids the problems of street life with his homosexuality, which keeps him from gang activity. Similarly rejected by her peers, the geeky girl of "Tiger-Frame Glasses" reworks harsh reality into fantasies that she records in her journal. The remaining three pieces are all told from the perspective of a teenaged girl, the child of a white German mother and a black American. In one, she and her mother and siblings run from their father's violence, and she retreats into the perfect world of teen magazines; in "Miracle Answer," the same girl scans her neighborhood for a suitable father figure; and in "Inside, a Fountain," her mother sends her to her German relatives, with whom she discovers a strong bond.
More than simple authenticity, Ferrell offers a complex vision of ghetto life mingling hurt and hope: work satisfying as art, and disturbing as sociology.