Steinke’s novel follows Jesse, a precocious adolescent, who has arrived in Roanoke, Virginia with her family after her father has left his position as a Methodist pastor. The family is hoping for a new start but the strains of her parents’ marriage & Jesse’s own awkward coming-of-age quickly reveals the trials they must face. Jesse’s father is spiritually adrift, dabbling in various philosophies while trying to help other unfortunates. Jesse’s mother is bored & dissatisfied as a housewife, conditions that have helped develop her baleful temper. Jesse herself struggles to understand what life as a girl means & why certain everyday things seem totemic to her & not to others.
One of the reasons I gave this book a high rating is because I read it in the shadow of Steinke’s earlier book Suicide Blonde. While I haven’t yet read any explicit mention of Sister Golden Hair as a sequel/prequel, I would be very surprised if it wasn’t. Not only are elements of Jesse’s characterization the same (name, details of parents’ relationship, her general way of relating to the world) but the relationships she navigates in this novel echo & expand upon thos in the previous book. Jesse’s eventual disillusionment with her friend Jill in SGH recall certain ways she dealt with Bell in SB and the power dynamic between Jesse & Sheila in not unlike how Jesse relates to Madison.
Another reason I love these two books so much are the ways that Jesse reminds me of Mick Kelly, another of my favorite characters, who also found traditional femininity to be a confounding practice & collected meaningful objects to mark the path into her interior life. Jesse gets by mimicking the girls & women she grows up around, hoping that one day something will click & she’ll wake up a fully realized girl. But with the shadow of Suicide Blonde hanging over the ending, it’s hard not to close the book without feeling a sad realization that she’ll find heartache before she finds self-acceptance. (Also, Jill’s baptism at the end of SGH & Bell’s suicide at the end of SB contrast one another in an eerie fashion that still gives me goosebumps. Seriously guys, SGH‘s ending is a real downer if you read it with that previous memory.)
Because my reading of this novel is so bound up in my earlier experience of Steinke’s work, my enjoyment may have elevated this book more in my mind than it should have. But I would still recommend it for the author’s beautiful prose & the deft way she captures the odd defining moments of any relationship.