29
Apr
13

The Secret Lives of Small Town America – Lynn Lauber’s White Girls

WHITE GIRLS

A short but well written collection of stories, Lynn Lauber’s White Girls does a great job capturing a small town in the early 1960s: the ennui of housewives, the grittier people at the edges of suburbia and a tense, dark underlying racial tension.

Set in Union, Ohio, White Girls follows the early years of Loretta Dardio through a series of related stories that each show a side of her hometown. Her dad works at a department store and sells insurance on the side and her mom is a housemaker. While they try to look like a happy family, their lives are a facade masking major problems: their marriage is on the rocks, her mom is frustrated by her limited role in life and Loretta seems like the only person in her neighbourhood willing to speak kindly to racial minorities.

An example: early in the book, a black family moves across the road from the Dardios. They’re frozen out by the neighbours, who start a neighbourhood watch and loiter around that family’s house, staring at them like they’re intruding on something. It’s an act of unspoken racism designed to drive them back to the other side of the tracks. When it works, the neighbourhood doesn’t say anything about victory, but only about property values. Everyone knows what they’re doing but are either too embarrassed or too polite to admit it.

It’s easy to compare this to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio because it takes a similar look at another Ohio town. Like with Anderson’s novel, I appreciate the smaller touches Lauber’s included: the local TV studio which makes stars out of people who can’t find work in larger cities, the role of a homecoming queen, the radio station signing off at night. Lauber’s done a great job at capturing small town life and the people who populate Urban.

But this book goes a little further into the thoughts and judgements of it’s citizens than Winesburg ever did. There’s the forgotten old women, complaining to anyone who’ll listen in a department store bathroom; the bar near the bowling alley where lonely people meet; the racism of the main character’s family, which is never especially overt but is always there just out of reach. Late in the book, Loretta’s brother starts talking about what calls a conservative view of race relations; he’s another casualty of the small-mindedness of this town.

In the second part of the book, Lauber expands her focus from the lilly-white community around the Dardios to the other side of town, showing how the minority population is effected by this racial tension. One of these stories (Homecoming)  is the best story in the book: it shows how the pressure put on everyone to accept their parents roles can backfire as the teenagers strive to create their own identities. And maybe that’s the lasting impact of this book: how much of these attitudes are inherited? And if so, how can we get past them?

Rating: 8/10. A great debut by Lauber (who seems to have not done much since, unfortunately  and one of the most overlooked novels of the past 20 years. The one thing I didn’t like about White Girls was how at just under 200 pages, it flies by. It’s gets a little dark, especially once you start poking around the corners Lauber hints at, that’s part of why I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s worth hunting down a copy.

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