“Girl from Soldier Creek”
Author: Patricia Foster
Publisher: Stephen F. Austin State University Press
Price: $18.00 (Paperback)
Patricia Foster, raised in Foley, Alabama, is now a professor of English in the University of Iowa’s distinguished MFA writing program, teaching nonfiction. A 2017 winner of the Clarence Cason Award, Foster excels at creative nonfiction. Her career had a fine start with the memoir “All the Lost Girls” in 2000. The preface to that book contains the following evocation of her home territory: “the rivers and bays—Fish River, Magnolia River, Perdido Bay, Soldier Creek—meander southward through gladed swamps towards the Gulf of Mexico.” She asks herself, many years later, in her room in Iowa City, “how a tiny patch of soil can hold such longing, and why the longing is so violent, like a terrible sore just beneath my skin.”
“All the Lost Girls” is not the story of a perfectly happy girlhood, to say the least. And now after dozens of personal essays, a collection of which, “Just Beneath My Skin,” extends Foster’s life story through 2004, Foster has returned to the same inescapable place, to render in fiction the story of two sisters growing up in Soldier Creek in the late 1960s.
That “terrible sore” continues to itch and must be scratched.
The Soldier sisters, Amanda and Jit, are about 16 and 18. They live with their mother on Soldier Creek, which runs south into Perdido Bay.
Life for teenage girls is notoriously difficult, we know, but nothing compares with the trials these two endure. Father lives alone in a shack, drinking himself to death. His dreams of developing this area, which he named after himself, have failed. The girls live with their mother, an irritable, unbalanced woman who was sexually assaulted by her father and is unhappy to be in Soldier Creek. She was a Birmingham girl and would like to be back in a more “civilized” place.
The sisters clearly love each other, but the sibling rivalry is intense.
Amanda is Mom’s girl, but it seems Mom never wanted Jit, who is rebuffed when she seeks her mother’s love. Jit would like to be a daddy’s girl, but Daddy is unavailable.
Both girls are quite bright, Amanda exceptionally so. Seeking to change her life, she gets a scholarship to Trinity University in North Carolina, clearly modelled after Duke, but her poor high school preparation and high anxiety over her economic and social deficits make life there stressful. She envies her more sophisticated classmates, echoing Nick Carraway’s comments about Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”: “When they talked, their voices were full of money. It was money, not smarts, after all, that gave them such carefree confidence.”
There are some very fine scenes of life at that “Southern Ivy,” especially in the course Amanda takes in literary modernism—Yeats, Pound, and especially “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, which seizes Amanda’s imagination. The portrait of Professor McKune is well-drawn. McKune, smart and also understanding, does his best to guide this country girl through some very intimidating material.
We learn that Amanda’s anxiety has resulted in or is accompanied by a narrow-focus eating disorder—she is a clinical chocoholic, gorging on candy bars. She tells how she hides in her room. “I pushed a chair up against the door, then lay naked in bed and ate chocolate in the dark. Mars Bars, Snickers, Reese’s Cups, Hershey’s, Milk Duds. Even Tootsie Rolls. I lined them up on my stomach like a little army in formation…” Already off balance, when, near the end of her first semester, Amanda is sexually assaulted, she goes home without taking finals.
Back at Soldier Creek, the very shy Jit is also sexually assaulted while on a date with Johnny Turner, the local football hero and spoiled rich boy. Jit runs away, traveling to Los Angeles and searching for a long-lost Aunt Katy.
Foster spends a good deal of time describing the marshes, birds, tides, mudflats and so on of her beloved Lower Alabama, and the reviewer’s cliché is to say that the natural world around Soldier Creek is itself a character. If so, with all the sweat and snakes, it is not a character I like.
As with Amanda in Trinity, however, some scenes with Jit in LA, arriving by bus alone, scared, are the best in the book. She is befriended by a black Vietnam vet, Born Jones, a painter. A strong swimmer, she gets a job in a club as a “mermaid” in a glass tank behind the bar. Now that is material I have not seen used before.
The narrative in general, which features disappointment, death, disease, poverty, neuroses, despair, bankruptcy, and mental illness, as well as the above-mentioned sexual traumas, is, to my taste, unrelentingly grim. At one point Amanda describes herself as “some huge rotting carcass whose stench fouled the air.” That pretty much nails down one end of the self-esteem spectrum.
At the close, Foster shows us these girls from Soldier Creek ready to move on and implies their lives will be better. I sure hope so.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.