Tomato Girl, Jayne Pupek. Algonquin Books. 298pp, $23.95.
From the beginning of Jayne Pupek’s Tomato Girl, we are plunged into a dark world. In the first few pages of the novel, 11-year-old narrator Ellie Sanders reveals that she is living in the aftermath of abandonment. Her father has been gone for some time, leaving her with a mother whose “nerves are wound tight as a watch.” This is a self-destructive mother who digs at her wrist with a pencil until it bleeds, a mentally ill mother who, in a detail that makes the skin crawl and keeps the pages turning, “keeps Baby Tom in a jar.” The understated way Ellie offers up such ghastly details reveals that she has become acclimated to a horrific world, and this acclimation’s toll is central to the book.
Tomato Girl—with its brutal violence, mental disease, incest, grotesqueries, degeneration, and supernatural elements—is well-rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition. Like Carson McCullers, Pupek features a girl as witness to the madness around her. The madness is not only personal but social—like any good Southern Gothic novel, this book incorporates a critique of the madness of society. One of society’s madnesses dealt with here is racial bigotry. Clara, a “colored woman,” is Ellie’s friend, even though Ellie is warned not to enter Clara’s neighborhood. Especially revealing is that Ellie’s friend, Mary, is the most vocal arbiter of the racial divide. When Mary says that a “white girl isn’t safe in a neighborhood full of colored boys,” we can hear the voice of a child who has been carefully taught racism. Ellie’s internal response (“Mary doesn’t understand that when you need somebody the way I need Clara, you don’t care two sticks what color skin they live in”) sets up one of the novel’s many layers of conflict.
The well-wrought racial conflicts touch on the most satisfying aspect of Tomato Girl: the complex dynamics of Ellie’s relationships with Clara and a variety of other characters. For instance, the “tomato girl” referred to in the novel’s title is a teenager named Tess who lives for a time with Ellie and her father. Some of the novel’s richest scenes occur between Ellie and Tess, who initiates Ellie prematurely into the world of womanhood.
Ostensibly, Tess has moved into the house to help with household chores while Ellie’s mother is in the hospital; however, Pupek’s effective use of dramatic irony reveals to us more than Ellie can see. We understand before Ellie does that her father and Tess are lovers, and when Ellie describes her father (a store clerk) and the tomato girl as she sees them together, we know Ellie feels something is amiss. Still, Ellie can’t (and perhaps doesn’t want to) put her finger on exactly what is going on between them:
Because I’d seen it, I knew that when the tomato girl came to the store, Daddy ran out to open the truck door for her. He held her hand while she stepped down, easing her onto the asphalt as if she were a princess. He hauled in her produce and placed it near the front store windows, checking to see if she was pleased with how he’d arranged the baskets. He hovered over her as if she belonged to him. Sometimes Daddy took her by the arm and led her to the back office to pay for her goods. If there were no customers, he might lock the door, and they’d staying the room a long time. Occasionally I’d hear them laugh, but mostly, they were quiet. I figured Daddy gave her special attention because of her hard life and her infirmity. People talked about it, but no one had ever told me the details. They only shook their heads and said something like, “That child has had a time of it.”
Such dynamics create a loaded reading experience: we view the novel’s world simultaneously through Ellie’s naive eyes and our veteran ones. We deeply feel Ellie’s vulnerability in her hazardous world. We see the dangers that she can only intuit. It’s as though she’s perched on the tip of a knife and we hold our breath, wondering what will happen next and how the child will endure.
As Ellie moves through her life, Pupek captures the essence of a child’s bewilderment about the ways of the world. In this passage, for instance, Ellie grapples with the deep question of how a purportedly loving God can allow so much suffering:
I thought about my God promises, how I’d tried to be good and God still killed my mother’s baby. I figured all the talk in church about God being good and loving was just a lie. The truth is, God didn’t need Mama’s baby half as much as she did. Why couldn’t He do that one thing? Was it too much for God to spare a little baby? Maybe God’s like the rest of us, doing bad things sometimes just because we can. Only with God, it’s not little things like sneaking into the boy’s bathroom or stealing an extra cookie when your mother’s not watching. With God, it’s sending tomato girls to steal your father’s heart; it’s killing your mother’s baby to make her mind go.
In passages like these, Pupek nails a child’s reasoning—a logic hard to refute. It’s the logic of a child living in a world of pain.
The prologue, and the fact that the novel is written in the first-person, tell us that Ellie will survive physically. But what about her psychic wounds? Pupek—a former social worker—is clearly interested in the ways a child navigates a broken home life that is immersed in secrets and taboos. As a child in an impossible situation, Ellie grabs onto any scrap of real or imagined possibility. So chaotic is her home life that she revels in the reliable confines of school, a place where she can count on consistency and dependable adults, the “one place,” as Ellie puts it “where grown-ups handled everything.” She adds that school is the place where “the worst things you had to figure out on your own were equations at the blackboard and where the decimal point should go.” Even with so many reasons to break away from her troubled family life, Ellie walks the tightrope of both craving and eschewing connection. She knows that to reach out beyond the isolation and secrets of her dysfunctional family could mean being taken away from the only home she knows.
In the end, Tomato Girl suggests that under such brutally dark conditions, the rays of light come from the broader community: a teacher who is alarmed about Ellie’s deterioration and stops by the house, a flawed yet concerned sheriff who does his best to help, and of course Clara, who works her limited magic in Ellie’s life. Ellie’s only possible savior lives outside her home, a house that is literally and figuratively degenerating. Isolation can kill a child. Community might just save her.
Kate Evans is the author of Like All We Love and Negotiating the Self, as well as a forthcoming novel, For the May Queen. She teaches at San Jose State University and blogs at Being and Writing.
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