Reading Richard Fifield’s debut novel The Flood Girls is similar to what I imagine it might be like to parachute out of an airplane. The exhilarating rush at the beginning of the journey pulls you through the atmosphere then you quickly land and contemplate the world around you with new eyes. The Flood Girls rushes at you with staccato humor as recovering alcoholic Rachel Flood returns to her tiny hometown of Quinn, Montana in 1991, after nine years of self-imposed exile. She’s been working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve steps and is returning to apologize and atone for her damaging teenage behavior. No one in town, including her mother Laverna, the owner of the local bar, the Dirty Shame, is eager to see her. Why would anyone welcome a girl who slept her way through high school with everyone including her mother’s boyfriend and who the town blames for both a robbery and a murder?
Luckily for the reader, her new neighbor Jake, a twelve-year-old, who favors flamboyant thrift shop clothing, Jackie Collins novels, and Madonna music, befriends her. He’s just one of an endearing cast of quirky characters enlivening this charmer. The book introduces the reader to them via the bar and a softball team, “The Flood Girls,” that Laverna manages as if it were a small Soviet bloc nation. When Laverna is injured and can’t work, Rachel thinks she can make amends by taking a shift at the bar and then by reluctantly joining the team despite her inability to catch, throw, or hit a ball. On her first day working,
“Rachel emptied the mop bucket as the first customers finally arrived, the lunch drunks. They tracked snow all over her freshly cleaned floor. All were schoolteachers, eleven in total, ten beer drinkers and her former English teacher, who ordered a White Russian.”
Once the snow begins melting, townspeople like gas station cashier Martha Man Hands and the hard drinking Red Mabel and her cohort Black Mabel along with Jake’s mother and trying-to-be-born-again stepfather, and the Police Chief who becomes Rachel’s AA sponsor, along with several other unique characters contribute to Rachel’s growth and the reader’s enjoyment.
At the heart of the tale is the estrangement of Laverna and Rachel which I wasn’t sure I wanted bridged. Laverna’s being an unforgiving, unbending alcoholic, didn’t bode well for Rachel’s new sobriety and I found myself hoping they wouldn’t reconcile. Fifield showed me who Laverna was and made me begin understanding her behavior. Laverna had “grown up in Quinn, so she was used to shotgunning beers. The men of Quinn considered it foreplay.” Laverna “always dressed in layers, even in the thick of August. Red Mabel accused her of dressing like she lived in constant fear of strip poker.” Sharp word pictures like these make this novel sing and make us feel like we live among the townspeople.
Rachel was doing well rebuilding her home, staying sober, and helping Jake adjust to being different in this small town twist on a prodigal daughter’s return. I fell in love with Rachel, Jake, and their companions through Fifield’s careful rendering of both their inner and outer lives as shown when Rachel drives down an empty highway one early morning.
“At the moment, fear flooded her body, an engine given too much gas. Rachel knew what the fuel was, knew who had caused this adrenaline to invade her blood. Rachel’s hands on the steering wheel were tight fists, white from clenching. She only released one hand on straight stretches of the highway, to wipe at the sweat collecting on her upper lip.”
Sometimes books we love veer into unanticipated, yet understandable actions that we do not like. When The Flood Girls swerves, we’re left breathless and even angry. That’s when we land on solid ground with our parachute surrounding us as we remember Rachel’s words as she heard:
“the engines of four-wheelers on the street outside, dads pulling their children behind them, sleds tied on lengths of rope. This was how you survived the winter in Quinn, thought Rachel. Sometimes you had to let other people pull you.”
Summing it Up: Read this zany debut stunner to enter the utterly unconventional world of Quinn, Montana where a cast of outrageous characters will make you appreciate friendship, forgiveness, and allowing others to lift you when you need it. Richard Fifield writes with an empathy and experience only a person who’s experienced the pain and wonder of recovery can offer. This may not be the book for your prissy great-grandmother, but it’s quite a gift for the rest of us.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: February 2, 2016
Author Website: http://www.richardfifield.com/
Reading Group Guide: http://books.simonandschuster.com/The-Flood-Girls/Richard-Fifield/9781476797380/reading_group_guide#rgg
What Others are Saying:
Publishers Weekly: http://publishersweekly.com/pw/reviews/single/978-1-4767-9738-0