A Child Plays Among the Snowmen Made at the Arbat
I want to wish everyone--old friends and new ones--a lovely holiday.
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.