History Lesson for Girls
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In History Lesson for Girls, award-winning author Aurelie Sheehan examines the turning point in one woman’s youth, creating a touching retrospective of adolescence in mid-1970s Connecticut. At the heart of her story is Alison, the book’s narrator and awkward heroine. Sensitive and patient, Alison suffers from scoliosis. Her bent spine is not only a physical defect but also a social stigma isolating her from other teenagers and even distancing her from her own family. Daughter of bohemian parents, lover of horses, and, most important, new girl in town, Alison is world-weary yet touchingly naïve. She can navigate the complicated drama of her parents’ crumbling marriage while remaining unsure of the social codes of junior high school. Without resorting to cloying convention or sentimentality, Sheehan presents Alison’s struggles with honesty and sharp detail. Told in retrospect from her life as a successful veterinarian, Alison’s voice balances the wisdom of hindsight with the searing immediacy of adolescent emotion.
Thankfully for Alison, she finds Kate, a classmate who is everything she isn’tpopular, pretty, and feisty to the point of rebellionbut whose secret pains mirror her own. Yet as they cling to each other for support, the problems that initially brought them together threaten to tear them apart. Their parentstrapped in unhappy marriages, dazed by drugs or disillusionmentspin like satellites around them, occasionally colliding but never making significant contact. The fact that the adults are absent much of the time has a harmful enough effect, but equally detrimental is the inadequate nature of their presence itself: Caught in their own concerns, they act like children as the children quickly become adults.
Woven throughout History Lesson for Girls is the saga of Sarah, “the lost heroine”of Revolutionary-era Connecticut, whose bravery in the face of heartache parallels that of Alison and Kate. The story-within-a-story begins as a social studies class assignment and develops into a creative refuge for the girls, their attempt to seize control and present history from their own perspective. But history is only as true as the elements it is composed of, and the girls’ good intentions dissolve in the face of adult deception and cruelty. As personal and private history meld together, Alison witnesses how the briefest of moments can change a person’s life forever.
Aurelie Sheehan is an assistant professor of fiction at the University of Arizona and the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant. She’s worked in a variety of jobs, some suspiciously secretarial, and has received a Pushcart Prize, a Carmargo Fellowship, and the Jack Kerouac Literary Award.
How did the process of writing History Lesson for Girls begin? Can you remember the first moment of inspiration for the novel? Is there anythingplot points, characters, etc.that you discarded in the process of writing that might surprise readers?
I always knew I wanted to write about the friendship between two adolescent girls. Originally, I had it in my mind as a kind of “girls vs. town” scenario, with the girls winning. As I got deeper into writing, I realized that the girls wouldn’t necessarily “win”that the playing field was too uneven.
Did you know immediately that you would alternate between Alison’s narrative and that of the lost heroine? What were your concerns, if any, in committing to this structure? What response do you hope it elicits in readers?
The Chronicle of the Lost Heroine was there from the beginning, but it took me a while to figure out how to include it in a way that would not distract from but enhance the main narrative. It seemed too static to witness Alison and Kate writing particular lost heroine scenes in real time, responding directly to where they were in their lives. I wanted to invite the reader to interpret the lost heroine’s story more fluidly, finding intuitive connections between the narratives. Interspersing this story between chapters also allowed me to keep quiet about the author of each section, thus uniting Kate and Alison briefly, as if one consciousness created the tale.
“History is written by the victors,” Churchill said, but in this novel I offer an emotionally true if factually suspect account as a counterweight to some of the other histories in the book. The lost heroine’s story is overtly and grandly imaginary, a mix of hearsay, literary allusion, and half-digested encyclopedic referencesall in service of an S.O.S. message that the girls are sending out to anyone who will listen. The reader is listening, even if that’s not the case for the adults in Alison and Kate’s world.
You have also written a well-received collection of short stories, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant. What are the differences between writing short fiction and a novel? Does the writing of one influence the other? Is there a connection between form and content?
The story form is intense and crystalline, with the necessity for images or scenes to work in immediate contrast to one another. Stories have movement, but I almost see the scenes in a story as something you can hold in your hand and study all together. The novel’s more leisurely pacing creates a whole different rhythm, even within each sentence. On a purely personal level, I enjoy dropping into the imagined world of a novel for months and years at a time.
Still, writing in both forms works well for me. When I’m between drafts of a novel, or if I’ve completely flummoxed myself at any stage in the process, I can put it aside and turn to shorter fiction. I’m still working, but by getting away from the novel project for a bit, I gain perspective and renewed strength. Of course this works in the opposite direction as well: I’ll write a draft of a story, set it down for a few months, and then come back to it with more clarity.
Why are female friendshipsand adolescent ones in particularsuch fertile ground for fiction? Why were you drawn to this subject? Is there anything of your own youth in Alison’s story?
Friendship is never created in a vacuum. In adolescence, girls are struggling to find their own power, to make their voices heard. Their friendships are strong because the need is strong: for alliance and for communication. This, like any battleground, is tempting for a fiction writer.
I share some broad experiences with Alison (I have scoliosis, I grew up in Connecticut, and I rode horses). Yet as a writer it was necessary for me to step out of my own shoes and reimagine everything, and this is what resulted in the novel.
Horses play a pivotal role in your novel, as they do in many girls’ lives. Why do you think so many women go through a “horse phase” in their youth? What is its significance and why does it often disappear with the onset of adulthood?
Horses are beautiful, strong, fast, powerful, and to ride a horse is to be part of that, even to master those qualities. (Although this doesn’t explain My Little Pony, those big-eyed, big-maned plastic horse-like things my daughter enjoys!) Horse riding is an adventure, and girls crave that. To ride a horse, to gallop in a field, combines physical mastery with an incredible mental state of both concentration and complete freedom. It’s an opportunity for girls who may feel constraints elsewhere in their lives, who are just coming into a sense of their own identity.
My friends and I didn’t give up horses for boysthe old sawwe gave them up for practical reasons. We moved, went to college. The practicalities of keeping a horse became more complex, and we didn’t have the time or money to do it anymore. In keeping with the generational theme of the novel, maybe my daughter will get into horses (real ones) one day, so I’ll have a reason to have them in my life one more time.
The lack of emotional connection between parent and child looms large in History Lesson for Girls, not only between the girls and their parents but also between Alison’s parents and grandparents. Why are relationships between parents and children so complicated? As a mother and daughter, how have you attempted to breach that gap?
Both Alison and Kate are grappling with the legacies of their families, struggling with their desire to belong, their desire to break away, and, in Alison particularly, a desire to define what these legacies might mean. History (which is to say, reality) changes with perspective, of course, and The Chronicle of the Lost Heroine may be no more fanciful and illusory than some of the sanctioned histories championed by the adults (Mr. Bostitch, say, or the Women of History). In this novel, the glass pane between these diverse realities is cloudy.
Family traits, repeating passions and foibles, allegiance to the family history, the known way of looking at things, fascinate me as a writer, even as they simultaneously seduce and confound me as a human being. Children embrace, throw out, and remake their families. It’s an ongoing process. “I am not my mother,” says Kate at one pointand this is true and untrue at the same time. Even adults can make mistakes, allowing personalities to overlap and subsume identity.
Late in the story, Sarah Beckingworth considers this: “Even now she can remember standing next to her mother in the field. Compared to the Paleozoic rock, they were virtually the same age.” As an adult, my ability to see my own parents as separate individuals and as regular, fallible humans, just like me (“virtually the same age”), deepens my understanding of them, makes our relationship richer. But I don’t have any real answers, and I can only hope that as my own daughter grows older, I’m able to maintain a balance of honesty and respect, of attentiveness and willingness to set her free.
Throughout the novel, you provide some brief details of Alison Glass’s adult life, but the narrative focuses primarily on her youth. Where is she now? What is she like? Do you think you would ever revisit her character in the present?
I wrote a lot about Alison’s life that I didn’t finally use. It felt like the tension in the remembered story was best maintained with a minimum of adult overlay. (On my desk right now is a draft of a story about a veterinarian that comes from these outtakes, though she is no longer Alison, exactly.)
In her life after the book, I imagine Alison is happily married to Neal, who had the good sense to toast “the horse and the girl.” I expect she is probably still haunted by Kate and always will be.
You’re the director of the creative writing program at the University of Arizona. What advice do you give prospective authors? How does teaching affect your own writing? What, if anything, have you learned from your students?
I do learn from my students. In the graduate workshop, writers comment on one another’s work, and in the process hone their own abilities to critique and rewrite their own stories. I am one of those writers, and I learn from the challenges and successes of the younger writers with whom I work. There’s a great joy in talking to and spending time with people who share a passion, and my students give me that chance.
Writing requires diligence and practice. I think most successful writers clock in many hours on a regular basis. And writing is an ongoing investigation into what matters to the writer as a person and as an artist. Thankfully, a writer never achieves a state of grace, which means that the thrill is all in the pursuit.
What books are currently on your bedside table? What books or authors have been most important to you over the course of your life?
Still on the nightstand, read recently but not yet put away: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, Night by Elie Wiesel, and The Unprofessionals by Julie Hecht. I’m reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and will then move on to The Unsettling, the new story collection by Peter Rock.
I love Cervantes, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Flann O’Brien, Raymond Queneau. In the living set, some strong favorites are Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Frederic Tuten, Nancy Lemann, Lydia Davis.
What are you working on now?
I have a few projects going. I’m working on a new novel, a collection of stories, and another collection of short prose pieces, called One Hundred Histories.
- Tut Hamilton’s sham shamanism and Clare Glass’s holistic healing exist at opposing extremes of the same human desire for guidance and belief in self-improvement. Discuss how the question of faithin love, in friendship, and in oneselfexists in the novel.
- How much influence do parents’ private lives have on their children? Is this unavoidable? Damaging? What happens when being a good parent and being a fulfilled adult are at odds with each other? Where are the lines drawn?
- Choose three words to describe each of the parents in History Lesson for Girls; compare your choices as a group. Are you surprised by others’ selections? How do the various perspectives relate to each other?
- What accounts for the success of Kate and Alison’s friendship? What does each girl provide for the other? To what do you attribute the growing distance between them?
- The girls use horseback riding as an emotional outlet, a way to find freedom in their constricted lives. Do you have any similar tools in your own life? What are the benefits of these methods of escape? Are there any risks involved?
- How did you respond to the intersecting narratives of Sarah, the lost heroine, and of Alison and Kate? How does each section relate to the other, chapter by chapter? What do you think is the purpose behind structuring the novel in this way?
- Do we all have a lost heroine (or hero) in our past? If you were to write your own history, what would it be like? Where would you set it? How would it connect to your current life?
- The expression “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is a comment on the commonality of human experience throughout history. How do the heroines’ experiences in History Lesson for Girls relate to your own adolescence? Is much of what is presented in the novel true of adolescence today?
- “What is history? When does it begin?” asks Alison on page 293, contemplating the question of perspective and the importance of everyday events. How would you answer? Think of history on a grand scale (e.g., world history) as well as small (e.g., personal history).