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Girls 2 Women

Book review: Sister Chicas by Lisa Alvarado, Ann Hagman Caradinal and Jane Alberdeston Coralin, and The Outside Groove by Erik Esckilsen


Published June 27, 2006 at 8:28 p.m.

Girls, and perhaps adult women, too, love Cinderella stories. For all the well-meaning feminist efforts to debunk the myth of pumpkins and Prince Charming, it's reborn in some form in every generation. "Chick lit," one of today's best-selling genres, often reads like a combination of Jane Austen's sharp-eyed social satire and Cinderella's wide-eyed belief in romance.

But perhaps the enduring attraction of Cinderella stories isn't their theme of romantic rescue so much as their faith in the power of transformation. We see that faith at work in two new female coming-of-age novels by Vermont authors. Different as they are, each contains that classic scene in which the heroine puts on a new dress -- the dress -- and observes herself in the mirror, all grown up. The modern Cinderella may be her own fairy godmother, even her own Prince Charming, but her story still culminates in that magical moment when she's dressed for the ball.

Or the speedway. In The Outside Groove, the third young adult novel by Burlington writer and Seven Days contributor Erik Esckilsen, the unlikely Cinderella is Casey LaPlante, a bright girl with a serious chip on her shoulder. Though she isn't forced to sweep and toil, Casey is consistently ignored by her family in favor of its one ruling passion: stock car racing.

Casey's brother Wade is "Demon's Run Raceway defending track champion at the young age of 20" -- following in the tire tracks of his dad, who almost made it to the national circuit. He's a celebrity in Fliverton, home to the track and a town in which racing is treated "like a religion," as narrator Casey acerbically puts it. (Situated in "Granite County," Fliverton may be modeled on Barre; in an author's note, Esckilsen thanks Thunder Road drivers and personnel for their expert advice.)

Meanwhile, Casey, who excels academically, can barely get her parents to notice her long enough to tell them she's been accepted to prestigious Cray College. One night at the dinner table, frustration drives her to make the one announcement that's guaranteed to create a dead silence: "I've decided to start racing."

It's an odd but intriguing motivation for a sports novel: Casey initially races out of sheer pigheadedness, to show her family and the other naysayers that it can be done. (She's the first female on the track, even in the comparatively tame four-cylinder "Road Warriors" division.) Her "fairy godmother" is her Uncle Harvey, who used to be her father's crew chief. Now estranged from the family, he still knows how to craft a mean ride from spare parts. The "gleaming Thundermaker car painted forest green with gold trim" that he eventually makes for Casey is a coach if there ever was one.

There's a conventional romantic subplot -- Casey does find the dress and a date for the prom. But The Outside Groove is really all about the racing. When she first hits the track, Casey doesn't even consider racing a sport, let alone a challenge: It's "basically four left turns, then four more, then four more . . ." Naturally, she finds out it's not that simple.

Esckilsen does a good job shepherding the reader through the science and terminology of racing; by the end, even the terminally NASCAR-averse will be feeling the thrill of speed. He also conveys the complexity of Casey's motivations. Even as she gains a real love of racing, she's still nursing a grudge against her golden-boy brother and the town's macho racing cult, and her attitude leaves her room to mature.

It also makes her an entertaining narrator, with a voice that's breezy, slangy and self-aware. Describing her crush on Wade's pit-crew chief, Casey says, "I know that sounds pathetic and girly, but I'm not going to deny it." Whether she's referring to the weeks before prom as the "Days of Shrieking" or mocking her mom's indulgence of that "impish jokester, manchild Wade," Casey is a fine conduit for Esckilsen's comic voice.

Perhaps she's a bit too articulate and self-confident for a teenaged girl in the age of Raising Ophelia. Likewise, the small-town tough dames who become Casey's pit crew and lend her a dose of girl power are great fun, but one has to wonder why they immediately cotton to her when her peers at school malign her as "stuck-up."

Be that as it may, this is the type of Cinderella story that makes you want to believe it could happen. And maybe it did, in one way or another -- Esckilsen's note says he was "inspired by" real-life Thunder Road champion Tracie Bellerose.


Racing in the "Firecracker 50 Extravaganza" isn't exactly a typical female coming-of-age ritual. Sister Chicas, by contrast, pivots around a traditional fixture of Latina culture: the Quinceañera, or formal "sweet 15" party, which marks a girl's transition to womanhood. It's about as close to a Cinderella ball as you can get these days, complete with frou-frou dresses and male escorts who are known as caballeros, or "knights."

Sister Chicas is the joint production of three women who met at Vermont College. One of them, Ann Hagman Cardinal, lives in Morrisville; she's the national marketing director for Union Institute and University and a Vermont Woman columnist. Artist/poet Lisa Alvarado lives in Chicago, where the novel is set, and poet Jane Alberdeston Coralin is a doctoral student in Bingham- ton, New York. The authors have received national media attention for their savvy pitch to a publisher seeking novels about young Latinas, their defiance of cultural stereotypes and their unusual collaboration.

Three young women take turns narrating the novel in longish chapters, and each is voiced by one of the authors. Though the girls are friends -- even spiritual "sisters," as the title suggests -- each has a distinct background and her own set of coming-of-age dilemmas. Graciela, voiced by Alvarado, is a college student so determined to be a perfect daughter and a role model that she sometimes has a hard time remembering what she wants for herself. The daughter of highly educated, hard-working Mexican immigrants, she's acutely aware of her role as an exemplar of la cultura.

Leni, the creation of Cardinal, plays the "bad girl" to Graciela's incipient saint, swaggering the halls of her high school sporting safety-pinned gear and spiky hair. Half Puerto Rican and half Irish -- she shortened her name from Elena -- Leni finds her roots in The Ramones and The Clash rather than in her father's culture, from which his early death alienated her. "A punk rock Puertoriqueña?" she snipes. "I don't think so."

Coralin's Taina is the youngest and most vulnerable narrator. She's also the novel's Cinderella -- the one on whom the elaborate Quinceañera is inflicted by her prim, overprotective mother. Raised in Puerto Rico, Taina is strongly conscious of how race and class intersect: Her mother's family looked down on her father for his dark skin. When she falls in love with a Jamaican boy, she worries about how her mom will react to her date for the ball.

Brought together by their work on a school newspaper, the three young women create their own ritual of bonding over cafecitos at a cafe run by the courtly Don Ramiro. The authors evoke Chicago's Latino neighborhoods with grace and earthy detail. They also pull off the tricky work of collaboration: The three narratives feel different enough to come from different people, but not too different to be contained under the same cover.

Sister Chicas does suffer from some stylistic infelicities. In an effort to give immediacy to their narratives, the authors sometimes skip erratically between past and present tenses -- a problem that should have been addressed by editing. Taina and Graciela, both writers themselves, have a tendency to gush and become "poetic" when they're excited. Some awkward similes result, as when Taina says, "Tears careen down my face and collect on my jacket like a pile of lemmings falling off a cliff."

Another problem is that the solutions to the three heroines' dilemmas feel almost too simple. It's inevitable that Taina's coming-out ball, which initially embarrasses her, will become her chance to blossom into womanhood, and that her Sister Chicas will blossom beside her. While not quite Prince Charming-perfect, the three girls' love interests feel more like fantasy than reality -- they lack complex motives of their own.

Still, the exuberance of Sister Chicas is contagious. The narratives move along with a youthful, colloquial swing. Each author knows how to use the telling detail to take us places we haven't been before, as when Leni describes a trip to Puerto Rico for a wedding as "Another sea of silk moire, kissing old ladies' powdered cheeks and dancing with strange male relatives." While the plot is schematic, the voices feel real.

Although Sister Chicas isn't being sold in the "young adult" category, it contains no glaringly adult content. Teenagers will probably appreciate both its energy and its educational appendices -- a lengthy glossary of Spanish phrases and a collection of the Sister Chicas' favorite recipes, from cod fritters to guava-flavored Torta Imperial.

The modern Cinderella has come a long way. The durability of her transformation doesn't depend on fitting her foot into a glass slipper, but on her own vigor, ingenuity and skepticism about the truisms fed her by the world at large. Whether it be breakneck racing or white-gloved dancing, she knows how to take the things her elders value and make them her own, meeting tradition halfway. And if there happen to be a pretty dress and a boy involved . . . well, that's just cream.