The Girl From Charnelle

 

~The 2007 Willa Award Winner for Contemporary Fiction~

~Library Journal Starred Review~

~A 2006 Southwest Book of the Year~

~An Editor's Choice pick of the Historical Novel Society~

~ A 2006 School Library Journal Best Adult Book for High School Students~
~Finalist, James Jones First Novel Award~

~A 2006 Mississippi Press/Gulf Coast Live Best Book of the Year~

 

It’s 1960 in the Panhandle town of Charnelle, Texas — a year and a half since sixteen-year-old Laura Tate’s mother boarded a bus and mysteriously disappeared. Assuming responsibility for the Tate household, Laura cares for her father and three brothers and outwardly maintains a sense of calm. But her balance is upset and the repercussions of her family’s struggles are revealed when a chance encounter with a married man leads Laura into a complicated relationship for which she is unprepared.

 

As Kennedy battles Nixon for the White House, Laura must navigate complex emotional terrain and choose whether she, too, will flee Charnelle. Dramatizing the tension between desire and familial responsibility, The Girl from Charnelle delivers a heartfelt portrait of a young woman’s reckoning with the paradoxes of love. Eloquent, tender, and heart-wrenching, K. L. Cook’s unforgettable debut novel marks the arrival of a significant new voice in American fiction.

Praise for The Girl From Charnelle

"The Girl from Charnelle burrows not just under the reader's skin, but into the flesh as well. K. L. Cook has given us a taut, textured tale that's grounded in both character and place."

~Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls

The Girl from Charnelle and K. L. Cook give us characters we care about—even grow to love—set inside a story that strikes deep, the way important novels used to do. This story of running from oneself to find oneself is beautiful and tender and moving and true.”

~Bret Lott, author of Jewel and A Song I Knew by Heart

“In The Girl from Charnelle K.L. Cook has written a brilliant portrait of a small-town teenage girl, whose secret affair shows such a complicated mix of will and entanglement, desire and accident, that it feels utterly true. The novel unfolds with a rare suspense, as it moves its characters through the threat of discovery and the after-effects of family disaster. A fresh and indelible book.”

~Joan Silber, National Book Award finalist author of Ideas of Heaven

“K. L. Cook is the best kind of storyteller—he creates compelling characters and dives deeply through the wreckage of their lives, exploring the darkest corners and returning with pieces of courage, love, and hope. The Girl from Charnelle will capture your heart, and stay with you, long after you turn the last page.”

~Hannah Tinti, author of Animal Crackers

“After reading The Girl from Charnelle, I'm so convinced by K.L. Cook’s writing that I believe Laura Tate is a real person with a beating, aching heart, so full of longing and loneliness that she might burst. I loved her, I was frustrated with her, I was happy for her, sad for her, but the best part is that I felt I knew her. She’s an amazing and lovely creation, and I'm honored to have met her within the pages of this book. The Girl from Charnelle grabs hold of the reader on the first page and never lets go, always building the tension, always adding another layer to this beautiful, entertaining, and ultimately profound meditation on family, friendships, and sex. This book is expertly rendered in the hands of a writer who—if we live in a just world—will soon be known throughout the country.”

~Silas House, author of A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo

Read More Reviews

Read an Excerpt from The Girl From Charnelle

From “Chapter 1: New Year’s Eve, 1959”

She’d only tasted beer before, never champagne. It was sweet and sharp and stung high in her head, and it gave her a tingling jolt, akin to her father’s black coffee. The more she sipped, the better it tasted. Soon she was finished with the whole cup. She stood by the punchbowl. The dance floor was swollen with people. The Pick Wickers, a six-piece band from Lubbock, plucked out a country waltz. The Pick Wickers had become minor Panhandle celebrities, had even opened for Marty Robbins in Lubbock, Amarillo, Fort Worth, Austin, and Houston. They had played the Charnelle New Year’s Eve celebrations twice before, in ’56 and ’58, and were regulars at the Armory dances. Laura had only seen them once and was glad that they were playing tonight. Though billed as a country act, they played a little bit of everything (rock and roll, the blues, swing, bluegrass, gospel) and would, rumor had it, get wilder as the night wore on and they drank more beer. The lead singer was a pudgy, gray-haired man with a string tie who sang like Fats Domino and sometimes played a screechy fiddle, and most of the other members of the band were in their thirties, except for the guy on the stand-up bass, a tall, thin boy with Cherokee cheekbones and a suit that looked too big for him. He would close his eyes during the songs and sway back and forth on the balls of his feet. Earlier in the evening, he popped his eyes open in the middle of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and caught Laura staring at him. He winked at her, smiled, then closed his eyes again and continued plucking his bass as if that wink was a dream and the real world was in the rhythm of his fingers.

 

A little after eleven now. The decade almost gone, Laura thought. Another coming. Though her mother had left them a year and a half ago, it seemed at times like it happened just yesterday and at other times like her mother never existed. Time slipped or seemed stuck, but never the same. She didn’t know how to judge it, and it no longer mattered, or at least it didn’t matter in the same chronically aching way.

 

And on nights like this, it certainly didn’t matter. Her first New Year’s Eve party. Except for Rich, who was staying with Mrs. Ambling, her family was all here. Manny with his girlfriend, Joannie. Her father at the bar. Gene with his friends. They’d arrived late, almost eight-thirty, and the whole time, she’d been dancing—the Twist with Gene, a polka with her father, and other dances with boys she went to school with. Though chilly outside with the threat of snow, the inside of the Armory felt warm. On the deck were three barbecue grills with chicken and ribs and brisket. Inside were chips and a thousand variations on potato salad, bean salad, and fruit cocktail. Mounds of cookies and cakes and brownies. And a table full of champagne bottles, a few opened each hour, plastic cups filled. Her father had said she should try some, see if it tickled her fancy.

 

When she finished her champagne, John Letig suddenly stood by her side with a bottle in his hand, smiling, twirling around in goose-step foolishness.

 

“Let me top her off there, Miss Tate.”

 

She liked Mr. Letig. No one called him John, except his wife. Everyone else referred to him simply as Letig. He worked with her father at Charnelle Steel & Construction, and though he was younger—early thirties, she guessed—he played poker and went hunting and fishing with a group of older men, including her father. She sometimes babysat Mr. and Mrs. Letig’s two boys. One was almost five, Rich’s age, the other only three.

She held out her cup, and he poured too quickly. The foam bubbled over the rim and splatted on the floor between them. She jumped back but could feel the wetness on her legs and the laced hem of her dress. She wanted to protect the dress, a green and white-striped one with small white satin bows on the sleeves and waist—a dress she’d had her eye on for more than a year and a half and had only recently saved enough money to buy, even though her father thought it frivolous to spend seven dollars on a dress she’d probably outgrow in a year or two.

 

“Whoops!” Mr. Letig chirped. He set the bottle on the table, gathered up a wad of napkins, and blotted the dance floor. “Here, let me get that,” he said and wiped at her shoes and leg.

He was handsome, she’d noticed before. A big man with a thick chest, but also delicate features, a long face, his eyelashes thick and practically white, his nose angular, Scandinavian. His lips always very red, like a lipsticked girl’s, and white teeth only slightly crooked. His fingers were long and slender, and he moved with the grace of a large cat.

“No, that’s okay. I’m fine.” She stepped away quickly and spilled more champagne.

“I’m not gonna bite you,” he drawled, looking up at her, smiling. His cheeks were flushed. His blonde mustache wriggled comically. “Unless you want me to.”

She laughed nervously. He grabbed her foot. He pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket and snapped it open. “Never let it be said that John Letig besmirched a lady’s shoes.”

 

He enunciated slowly, carefully, and she couldn’t tell if it was because he was drunk or because he was trying to be funny. She figured a combination. And it was funny and sweet in its way, and rather than call any more attention to herself—already people standing around the punchbowl were looking over—she let him finish polishing. He stood up, neatly folded the handkerchief, put it back in his pocket, and reached for the bottle of champagne.

“Thank you,” she said.

 

He winked at her. “My pleasure. Do you know what time it is?” he asked.

She could see now that his eyes were bloodshot and slightly glazed, but it didn’t scare her. He wasn’t a mean drunk, she could tell, not like a couple of Manny’s friends, who she knew got drunk as a precursor to fighting. He was having fun, and the alcohol brought out a comic foolishness that she found disarming.

 

She looked at the big Armory clock behind his head. “Eleven fifteen,” she said.

“Right. And at midnight, you’re gonna owe me something.” He smiled and tapped the bottle against her cup. “Cheers!”

 

“Cheers,” she said.

 

“Don’t worry. I’ll find you.” He walked away, his shirttail dangling over the back of his pants. He walked straight, though, and she wondered—had she noticed this before?—if he used to be an athlete. He had an athlete’s natural agility, even for a big man, a lithe fluidity that suggested he was at home inside his body.

 

And what was that thing about finding her? Just him drunk, she guessed. She knew at midnight, there would be toasts, everybody kissing. She knew it was a custom. In the past their family had always stayed home, sometimes listening to the New York City special on the radio but often not even making it to midnight. She took a long swallow of champagne, and it felt like all the bubbles popped in her head at once.

 

~top~

 

The Girl From Charnelle

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Backstory

I began The Girl From Charnelle during a time when I was periodically estranged from my mother. I would not see her for years at a time. Often I did not know where she lived or even if she was alive. As she drifted in and out of my life, I began to believe that the next time she disappeared would be for good. The novel grew out of my desire to reconnect with her—if not with the woman she had become, then with the girl she might have been. I wanted to re-imagine her life in the Panhandle town where she was raised and where I was born. I wanted to re-create life in that tiny house. I wound up discovering a family who, though at first resembling my mother’s, soon took on a life and drama all its own.

 

My fictional family had been abandoned by their women—an elopement by an older sister followed less than a year later by the mysterious disappearance of the mother. I focused on sixteen-year-old Laura, left to take care of her father and three brothers. I saw that this family was, like America itself in 1960, on the verge of not only a new era, but changes they could not have foreseen or prepared for. I saw Laura at the town New Year’s Eve party, startled by the advances of one of her father’s co-workers, John Letig, and then, surprising even herself, falling into an affair with him. I realized that this affair, and her discovery of her own secret erotic and intellectual life, would force Laura not only to begin to understand her mother and sister, but to struggle with the ways that we all try to leave our families and communities—honorably and with their blessings, if we’re lucky; or secretly, in shame, anger, or desperation, if we aren’t so fortunate.

 

Another event in my life deeply influenced The Girl From Charnelle. A few years before I began the novel, around the time that my mother and I were initially estranged, my youngest son was born with serious health problems. During the first few months of his life, my wife and I lived daily with the belief that he might die, and that it would be, in some inexplicable but palpable way, our fault. My son is fine now, but the vivid, painful experience of those months changed me. Since then, I’ve listened intently to the stories of parents who lose their children—to the way families are devastated, transformed, and sometimes healed by this kind of tragedy. About midway into writing the novel, I realized events were leading toward the death of a child, a death that both Laura and Letig would feel responsible for and that would propel them into very different futures than the ones they thought they wanted. And they would be forced, along with the rest of their community, to try to make sense of their grief, guilt, and anger.

 

During the three years I spent writing this novel, I did not show it to anyone, nor did I talk much about it, not even to my closest friends and critics. I kept thinking about this line from a Chekhov story: “Everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life, was going on concealed from others.” My characters had hidden lives. They were mysterious to each other and to me as they clung to their secrets and decided (or were forced) to expose them. When I finished the novel, I felt a great sense of relief and accomplishment, but also deeply sad and vulnerable about releasing these characters. These people I’d spent years with were no longer part of my secret world. But like Laura, I discovered that the value of a secret life lies, in part, in letting that hidden life—and letting the people you love—go.

 

Writing this novel about a family in crisis made me feel more connected to my own family and, more importantly, reminded me that fiction can profoundly expand both the reader’s and the writer’s capacity for empathy. I found that the experience of writing The Girl From Charnelle rekindled my compassion for those closest to me, no matter whether they stay nearby or continue, like my mother, to drift in and out of my life.

 

~ K. L. Cook