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Book Review: 'Lost Girls' By Ellen Birkett Morris

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Ellen Birkett Morris

There is something about reading the short stories in the collection Lost Girls by Ellen Birkett Morris that makes me think of a magic trick.

Blink and you won’t be able to figure out how she does it. But then, don’t blink. Stare as hard as you can. Retrace favorite paragraphs and lines and still be mystified about her pointillistic ability to create the images and lines that take the breath out of your body and create the unforgettable lost girls — and women — who inhabit these spaces rarely immortalized as engagingly or sympathetically in contemporary literature.

These are stories about the vulnerability, impulses, secrets, lies, and truths that girls and women at all stages of life experience in families, friendships, romantic relationships and the less actualized connections that emerge from a kind of power struggle, violence, or even happenstance.

The story, “Inheritance,” opens with the line, “Some people are born to sin;” while others, we learn, inherit the unavoidable role of sinner because of the spaces we are born into — spaces where there is no agency and no room to defy those who control who we are and will have to become. The story’s stunning ending reminds us in very dramatic terms of the ways that the girls and women in the rest of this book must attempt to wrest control of their lives in other situations. It is the attempts that makes these stories so resonant.

Youth and older age of these characters will also offer readers echoes of their own nameless experiences, perhaps even experiences that remain shapeless in our minds and secret contemplation but that emerge for us fully shaped and articulated in this collection.

In the story “Harvest,” Abby Linder is 70 years old when she makes the decision to remove “all the mirrors from her house.” She did not want to see her reflection so starkly anymore. She is startled by her own vague visage reflected on the window of a bus. She sees an “old crone with a face that had grown square with age.”

Abby even takes down the large mirror on the wall of Goodies Candy Store “which she had owned for 40 years.” She hires a high school student to paint a mural on the wall where the large mirror had been.

For Abby, “the years had slipped away, and the person she had been, disappeared with them, replaced by an old woman with wrinkles and bifocals, who men opened doors for or offered a hand up but nothing more.”

Abby engages with school students during the afternoon hours, the young kids seeking penny candy, the teens buying large chocolate bars, the women purchasing dark chocolate toffee. Even as her store is such a fixture in the community, Abby is visible to everyone else only as the person who sells candy to them. She goes through life now otherwise, “invisible” even though “she had never planned to be obsolete.”

The younger characters might wish for such a dubious superpower of invisibility. Instead many of them are objectified by boys and men chasing after only their youthful beauty, testing girls made lonelier by distracted, divorced parents, mothers and fathers who are as lonely. From them the girls learn that life will bring with it more broken promises, secrets, and betrayals.

These are all familiar girls in situations most of us have lived through — this friend whose parent died at a young age, that one who struggles with a parent or a boy who hits her and this one whose goals in life are influenced by T.V. and the fairy tales that shape and build up expectations doomed to lead us all to heartache. The wives and mothers in the stories are as knowable to us, women who seek out to find ways to anchor the despondency their own mothers could not elude.

In “Life After” Beth has lost her son in a terrible accident. For months after, her grief swallows her up. An old childhood friend of the son is grieving, too, and visits Beth, introducing her to the video games that the two boys used to enjoy. Beth finds herself playing the games to while away the hours. “I got lost in the game,” she says “tracking through the woods, plunging my sword into a dragon, shooting arrows at evil elves. It was a world where things made sense, and justice was as easy as a clean shot.”

Other mothers take up other ways to cope with life’s slings and arrows, the abject loneliness, and worse. Ellen Birkett Morris also gives a recognizable shape to the grief of not even beginning to locate what the ennui could be about.

Lost Girls is a slim volume of 17 stories with girls and women out there in a world not encumbered in any way by anything like a pandemic. Teen girls roam in the quotidian spaces where discoveries that wouldn’t rate the pages of a diary come forth as necessary and luminous, heavy with Proustian gravity. The lost girls search for answers. Their motives aren’t as last ditch and desperate as they are remarkable in their inevitability. Even when they can begin to discern the magician’s obvious and ordinary tricks, they still seek to find a form of extraordinary magic to trust in and live through.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.