This year four illustrious writers – Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein – have joined Professor of English Brock Clarke to teach courses in fiction and creative nonfiction at Bowdoin. Below is an excerpt from Braunstein’s novel The Sweet Relief of Missing Children.
The girl had received all her immunizations. She had been inoculated. She had been warned in school assemblies and by her mother and father and several aunts. One of these aunts had a serious-looking mole on her cheek, a sharp chin, a stern, pale mouth, and she wore no jewelry except for a black-stoned ring on her middle finger, all of which gave her the appearance of a witch or intractable schoolmarm. The girl took these warnings seriously—the aunt’s most of all. She knew to watch her back. She knew to avoid slow cars driven by men in sunglasses. She knew, at home alone, to say to the stranger on the phone, “My mother’s in the shower now. Shall I have her call you back?”
She would never say she was home alone, nor take the shortcut through the alley. All these warnings, all this advice, the real message was: You are precious. You are precious but you are not free. You can’t be both.
Did anyone get to be both things at once? It was unlikely.
The girl knew her family’s code word. If someone unfamiliar tried to pick her up from school, he had to know the code word too. He had to say it aloud. If he didn’t? She was to go to the principal’s office. She would have. She was staunch, confident.
She bore an obligation to the future to remain safe. The future was the tiny spray you feel on your face when you peel an orange, a simple promise.
The code word was—
It was not something she told anyone.
As a baby, she had been fed iron-fortified rice cereal and homemade purees; she had worn a pink satin headband. The headband, the booties, the yellow-haired doll propped in the corner of her crib, the expression of awed, nervous delight on her mother’s face, all this said: A girl! A girl! Later, vast quantities of vegetables: peas, succotash, lima bean soup. Her parents rarely served dessert. Occasionally a graham cracker, maybe a small bowl of vanilla ice cream. No sugar cereal, no candy bars. When she had a cough, her mother squeezed lemon and honey into a mug of hot water. The girl ate and drank whatever was put before her. She dried the dishes with a gingham cloth. She obeyed.
Early on her mother taught her about the wage gap, the suffrage moment, the sheer poverty of certain minds, some of which—but not all—were male. It was never too early to illuminate the harsh truth of the matter for a girl. Boys could play, could treat the world like a junkyard to be rummaged through, but girls needed a different set of eyes. Girls needed to be wary and strong and curious but not too curious. “Say ‘feminist,” the mother coached, and the girl, as a toddler, said it. Still, she was given the traditional things, babydolls and pink. Her hands mastered the rhythms of needlepoint. Her mother knew how to accept a paradox: a girl could be anything, could shatter the glass ceiling, but she was still a girl. Girls liked lace; they loved bows. Give a girl a pink something, give her a doll that tinkled in its pants, she’d be happy.
She was happy, this girl.
Excerpted from The Sweet Relief of Missing Children: A Novel by Sarah Braunstein. Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Braunstein. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.