Cover image for The first paper girl in Red Oak, Iowa and other stories
The first paper girl in Red Oak, Iowa and other stories
Stuckey-French, Elizabeth.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Physical Description:
xii, 203 pages ; 22 cm
Junior -- Doodlebug -- The first paper girl in Red Oak, Iowa -- Famous poets -- Blessing -- Plywood rabbit -- Scavenger hunt -- Search and rescue -- Leufredus -- Professor claims he found formula for ancient steel -- Electric wizard -- The visible man.
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Welcome to the curious world of Elizabeth Stuckey-French.  Her exuberant collection is peopled with characters who walk a thin line between reality and delusion, trying to break out of their molds and live a little. With stylish, wry writing, Stuckey-French creates intelligent, poignant, funny fiction. Her characters--mostly Midwesterners trying to make sense of a changing world--are bizarre but strangely lovable.  They may lie to make their situations better, but the stories have a resounding emotional truth. In "Junior," we meet a dog psychic who enlists her troubled niece in a moneymaking scheme.  In "Electric Wizard," grieving parents beg a teacher to invent poetry and pretend their dead son wrote it.  And in the title story, the mother of two young children drives east on a disordered impulse through a blizzard and picks up a gas station attendant along the way.  Several of these stories have appeared inThe Atlantic Monthlyand literary reviews, where her work has received recognition and praise. In Stuckey-French's striking fictional world, powerful emotional forces roil the outwardly placid surfaces of her characters' lives--our notions of "normal" are permanently altered, and yet these stories have a generosity of spirit that cannot fail to strike a chord with all of us.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In the title story, Cherry goes on a road trip with her two children to find her philandering husband in Florida. On the way through the South, she meets a young man working at a gas station and, without quite knowing why, invites him to accompany them. The trip's purpose shifts from finding the husband to finding adventure with the young man. Whether the main character, Cherry in this case, ends up all right or is bound for trouble and disaster is the question that haunts most of Stuckey-French's stories. Her characters have a penchant for trusting the wrong person, marrying the wrong man, choosing the wrong career. They can be awkward or ugly, needy or unpleasant, exactly like the people we meet every day. The beauty of these stories is that we can either remember people we know who resemble her characters or breathe a sigh of relief that we don't. --Ellie Barta-Moran

Publisher's Weekly Review

Matter-of-fact surprise animates this debut collection of 12 singular stories by Stuckey-French, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a James Michener/Paul Engle Fellowship winner. Set in a slightly skewed Midwest, each of the tales features at least one eccentric character whose personality seems to invite participation in peculiar experiences. In the title story, the mother of two youngsters, driving through a blizzard in pursuit of her husband, picks up a gas station worker on impulse, paying him to keep her and the children company. "Junior" features a psychic who makes her living finding lost pets and enlists her niece, a juvenile delinquent, in one of her shady schemes. A sojourn in New Mexico teaches the niece something about her own motivations, but her remorse for her small crimes is not of the garden variety. A common thread runs through this melange of encapsulated life stories, some weird, some moving, some funny: most people will do or say anything to improve a discomfiting situation- even lie to each other or to themselves. The English professor and his wife in "Famous Poets" prefer not to notice the rudeness of a visiting poet rather than acknowledge the truth exposed by their own young daughter. Odd avocations are presented as run-of-the-mill: in "Search and Rescue," a ladylike office worker reveals that she's a scuba-diver who gladly volunteers her services to locate dead bodies in polluted rivers. Talk hosts like Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer have accustomed Americans to attention-demanding characters and bizarre incidents, so that fiction writers struggle to compete in the realm of the fantastic. Stuckey-French bests those spectacles of the everyday absurd, and does to with style and verve. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



THE CITY pool was full of children that day, but I don't think that's what bothered me. I was fourteen and happy to be out with my friends. It was sunny but cool for mid-July in Iowa. A breeze flipped up the edges of our beach towels as we lined them up on the crumbling cement, anchoring them with clogs, a bottle of coconut oil, and a transistor radio which seemed to play nothing but Sammy Davis, Jr., singing "The Candy Man." My friends flopped down on their backs and fell asleep, but I couldn't relax. I sat cross-legged in my faded bikini, a hand-me-down from my sister Daisy. Daisy was lifeguarding, but she couldn't see me, didn't even know I was there. She looked like a stranger perched above the masses in her red tank suit and mirror sunglasses, her nose a triangle of zinc oxide. In one month, she was going away to college, leaving me to take care of our father. I couldn't let myself think about how dreary life would be without Daisy. I gazed out at the pool, which was circular, with the deep part and diving island in the center. A group of four or five children splashed around at the edge of the deep water, shrieking and dunking each other. A smaller girl in a green one-piece bathing suit dog-paddled near the splashers, barely keeping her chin above water. She wanted to play too, but the other children--friends? neighbors? sisters and brothers?--ignored her. Teenagers were doing cannonballs off the high dive, and their waves sloshed over her head. Nobody except me seemed to notice. The girl was paddling as hard as she could, getting nowhere. I stood up and waded into the water, which reeked of chlorine, and began swimming the breaststroke toward the group of children, holding my head up as a snake does. The older kids moved off toward the slide, leaving the little girl behind. When she saw me, she opened her eyes wide and reached out. I didn't have a clue how to rescue someone. I took her hand and she clawed her way up my arm. She was on me like a monkey. Her legs swung up and wrapped around my neck, dunking me, choking me. I tried to stand, but I couldn't touch bottom. She kicked me, hard, in the jaw. I shoved her away but she held on to me. I'd had enough of this kind of treatment. My hand gripped her head like a rubber ball. I held her underwater and watched her thin body squirming in its green ruffled suit. Someone finally screamed, and the lifeguards began blowing their whistles. Daisy dove from her chair in a red flash. Still I held the girl under. It's too late now, was the only thought I remember having. A man tackled me from behind, and Daisy jerked the girl from the water. The man gripped me tightly to his blubbery chest, as if I were trying to run away. Over on the cement Daisy knelt beside the girl and gave her mouth-to-mouth. After a few seconds Daisy stood up, holding the squalling girl, stroking her wet hair. The ruffles on the girl's suit were flipped up and plastered to her body. "Daisy," I called out. When Daisy looked over at me, her face slack with shock, I realized what I'd done. Everything after that seemed nightmarish but inevitable. Daisy and I were taken up to the pool manager's office, dripping wet, to sit in plastic chairs and wait for the police. The detective who came wore a velour shirt and looked familiar, like someone I might've seen at church. Daisy reported what had happened in a businesslike voice, while I stared at the tufts of hair on my big toes, wondering if I should shave them. The detective asked me if I had anything to add. "She tried to drown me first," I said. "That's not how the witnesses tell it," he said. I glanced over at Daisy. "Sorry," she said, ever the honest one. "I didn't see that part." At my hearing, we sat on a bench in front of the juvenile judge--first the detective, then my father, hanging his head, then my sister Daisy, her arm around my father, and then me. My mother, who'd washed her hands of us, didn't show. Because of my previous record--shoplifting and truancy--the judge decided to send me to the Cary Home in Des Moines for one school year. The Cary Home for Girls was an elegant brick house tucked into a cul-de-sac on the edge of an upper-class neighborhood. From the outside, you'd never know it contained six teenage delinquents and their live-in counselors. We bad girls attended class in the large attic of the house, ate pizza burgers, did homework together, and watched reruns of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." It hardly felt like punishment. At night, though, things fell apart. I had relentless dreams about Lisa Lazar, the little girl from the pool. She came to the Cary Home in her ruffled bathing suit and invited me outside to play. When she smiled, crooking her finger at me, I woke up terrified. I would stare at the buzzing streetlight outside my bedroom window and wonder what someone like me was doing at the Cary Home, someone who, until recently, had played by the rules, was fairly popular, had a semi-cute boyfriend, and tried her best to get decent grades. In April, near the end of my stay at Cary Home, my father called to tell me that his sister, Marie-Therese, was coming to see me. "She wants to help out," he said. I'd never met my aunt before. She and my father exchanged Christmas cards and birthday phone calls, but that was about it. "Marie stays on the move. She's a wheeler-dealer," was my father's only explanation of why we never saw her. I wasn't sure what a wheeler-dealer was, but it sounded intriguing. Excerpted from The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa: Stories by Elizabeth Stuckey-French All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.