Helen Ellis at BookPeople
On February 3, Helen Ellis read the first chapter of her debut novel Eating the Cheshire Cat; it's no secret why. It's a real doozy: A Southern belle embarrassed by her inward-pointing pinkies has her mother smash them with the back of an axe to correct their ungainly disposition. That's after the mother spikes the punch at her daughter's blowout sweet 16 party and then forces more whiskey down her sweet princess' throat when it comes time for the delicate procedure. At the hospital, the daughter is too drunk to tell the doctor the unique circumstances behind her broken pinkies; the mother, for the life of her, just can't figure out what happened. When the author finished reading, someone in the audience blurted out, "I think I know those women!"
Eating the Cheshire Cat (Scribner, 304 pp., $23) takes the tropes of Southern womanhood -- purity, purity, and purity -- and skewers them just a touch to the point of insanity. Ellis singles out three daughters of Alabama -- Sarina, with the pinkies; her next door neighbor and demented supplicant Nicole; and Bitty Jack, a poor, gangly nonentity just trying to get by -- and crosses their paths in horrendous, hilarious ways. At summer camp, Bitty Jack's father maintains the campgrounds and is asked to fix a fuse in the cabin where Sarina is staying. When he stumbles upon her in a toilet stall playing with herself, she accuses him of molesting her and lets everyone know about it. Bitty Jack knows it can't be true but lets bygones be bygones until the breaking point years later in college, when Sarina seduces Bitty Jack's boyfriend. Meanwhile, Nicole, who wants to live up to her mother's impossible standards but just can't, focuses instead on Sarina and helps make her successful. "Nicole did not like to be alone with her mother," Ellis writes. "Mrs. Hicks wanted Nicole to win the top pyramid spot, to have the loudest voice, to be tossed so high she could free volleyballs lodged in the gymnasium rafters. Nicole was good enough to be captain. When Mrs. Hicks was a girl, she was on the spirit squad. Being best was like blond hair: passed from mother to daughter like a stick of dynamite." By the point that Sarina is crowned homecoming queen at the University of Alabama, something's got to give. When it does, it's quite a spectacle.
Ellis' female characters are so extreme, catty, vicious, and, at the root of it all, woefully uncertain of themselves, that they must be mere extrapolations. But when I asked Ellis the day after the reading whether the people in her novel really exist, she said: "Yeah, yeah. Watch the Discovery Channel! There are several specials on beauty pageants -- this is definitely not a beauty pageant book, and there's a big ditch between a homecoming queen and beauty pageant queen -- but that mentality of the very large and in-charge mother and the little girl who's just cross-eyed with nondirection." That's what Ellis is going after, and there's a reason. "I keep hearing all this praise about this magnificent satire that I've written and it was never my intention to write a satire!" she acknowledged. "It's serious in that so many young women get themselves trapped into situations that they are raised to believe are ideal. I see so many women -- outside of the South as well -- who marry because it's the right thing to do. -- Being trapped in an unhappy -- ideal on the outside, horrible on the inside -- place is the most frightening thing in the whole book."
But Ellis doesn't corner readers into thinking that her book is good for them, at least not while they're reading it. It's crucial here that she be allowed to describe her upbringing: "When I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on the [book] tour," she said, "I had this kind of reunion -- of cousins, and over the course of French toast at a brunch, over an hour, I heard eight decapitation stories from Mississippi." I didn't believe her. "Yes," she insisted, "they were like, "You know Bill -- his parents really did get killed by a log truck and he was sleeping in the back. He woke up to his decapitated parents! And he's about 35 now, he has children of his own, he's doing fine.' And we're all laughing, laughing, laughing, laughing! So [Southerners] embrace the macabre."