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Girl in the River Paperback – May 12, 2016
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If only history classes were only this rich and enjoyable. Kullberg has crafted a wonderful look into Portland's history, and how women in particular may have navigated the tricky business of building a life against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century legal systems, power-plays, poverty and health care. Monica Drake, author, Clown Girl and Studbook
A brilliant portrait of Dr. Ruth Barnett, Portland's most famous abortion doctor and a most colorful character. -- JD Chandler, author, Portland on the Take
An extraordinary page-turner, featuring crooked cops, sensation-minded reporters, moralistic politician and always-vulnerable women, who turn out smarter and craftier than all the rest. A fabulous read--Rickie Solinger, author, The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law
Girl in the River brings history to life in a riveting story with a feisty working class heroine, whose feelings, attitudes and choices accurately reflect the times she lives in as well as her individual biography. --Johanna Brenner, author, Women and the Politics of Class
From the popular culture surrounding World War II to the work of a beloved abortion doctor, Girl in the River doesn't just capture the politics and sentiments of its time; it presents them in living color. A captivating historical novel powered by feisty protagonists, a smoky noir atmosphere, and a story based on real life events. --Midwest Book Review
Swept out from under the rug of Portland's history is a mid twentieth century world of nominally forbidden sex, drugs and gambling operations, openly protected by cops and politicians. Your guide to this illicit world and its later demise is an astute but vulnerable fictional call girl, Maebelline Rose, whose inability to deceive either herself or others makes her a perfect companion. Enticing as both story and history, the story is also a timely reminder of how much remains at stake as the battle over women's bodies continues. --Elinor Langer, author of A Hundred Little Hitlers
Girl in the River starts with a bang and hums right along, like one of those hard-boiled film noir movies. Kullberg sets the story in the tempestuous period spanning pre- and post World War II. It's a tale that could have taken place anywhere, but this one is based on actual events in and around Portland. Smart and raw and full of sassy dialog, the novel touches on issues of morality and justice, propriety and decency. The 1930's and '40's may have been a simpler time, but the corrosive impact of the corruption this novel explores is all too familiar. --Maryka Biaggio, author of Parlor Games --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
As staff physician and medical director for Multnomah County Health Department, Patricia Kullberg, MD, MPH, devoted her career to serving men and women on the margins, including the homeless, mentally ill, and addicted. She has written award-winning articles about health and medicine for both the lay and academic press. Girl in the River is her first novel. She lives in Portland with her husband, where she teaches writing to incarcerated women, tends a large garden and partakes of the recreational opportunities of the Pacific Northwest. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Poverty in Depression racked Mill City didn’t trap Mae Rose, but the big city of Portland closed in on her fast. Starvation and a bitter winter imposed blockades that narrowed Mae’s options, and soon the only choices facing her were bad, terrible and worse.
The story is told in straight, hard-hitting prose and in short chapters that maintain the rapid journey through tough lives and harder times. While Mae contends with one haymaker after another, you and I, with our eyes and hearts as witness, must also cope with the weight of the blows. And the blows are incessant. From the cataracts of the North Santiam River to the slow ceaseless flow of the polluted Willamette, we are in the middle of a flood and at risk of drowning. The maelstrom is dizzying—the force irresistible. To survive, deal with it—deal with starvation. Deal with privation. Deal with shutting down your soul and becoming what you do not want to be. Deal with breaking down completely in the endless quest to keep hunger at bay. And, finally, deal with the fact that from time to time, despite precautions, the risk comes to life. A fetus inside you halts the menstrual cycle. What will you do about that?
Mae’s plight is impossible to ignore. Growing up by the rushing North Santiam, Mae knew that her mother was no angel. But the mother’s undeniable love for her daughter remains a steadfast glimmer that will not expire. And Mae’s mother gave her child a perfect gift. She taught her to swim!
Read this novel. You will see and feel what it is like to face the choice in the flood. I am enriched and grateful having been there up close inside this story.
At the end of the first part of Patricia Kullberg’s debut novel, The Girl in the River, the 16 year old girl Maebelline Rose is forced to make a Sisyphean choice; that is, it’s not really a choice at all but an acceptance of the lot she has drawn. She had been starved as an orphaned runaway on the streets of depression-era Portland Oregon, then she was cheated by the adult man who, after promising a storybook rescue, pimped her out instead to be raped. Mae tries to pick herself up and move on but then--after her body is wracked by the arsenic treatments to treat the syphilis she contracted from the assault-- she loses her scrap of “honest” work and is now about to be thrown back to those grimy, unforgiving streets. She comes across again in her drawer the address of the call girl who offered to bring Mae into the “business.” Later, Mae Rose will become a most notorious call girl in the world of powerful men, a world where she enters a room and “half the men pretend not to ogle her and the other half don’t even make the pretense,” a world where she becomes the dominatrix of successful men twisted by repressed passions and self-loathing. But now she is looking at her sick, wasted body in the mirror, naked, realizing that she will drown if she doesn’t adapt to that same prostitute’s life that killed her mother. She rouges her nipples and draws a rude smile onto the mirror, and thus superimposes a leering clown over the image of her young, still innocent body, and so describes a raw emblem of the rupture in what should have been a basic social contract. The River figures into Mae’s psychological landscape, and here she is in what might be the river of Portland —the Willamette -- polluted and abused itself at that time, and Mae Rose has made the only choice a sixteen year old could make, to learn to swim and not to drown.
But while these powerful images may indeed tempt one to wax a sermon about the state of affairs in the hardscrabble urban life of the thirties, you won’t find any preachiness in Kullberg’s historical novel. Her character’s do not appear to have any time for soliloquies or soiree dialogues, and the author allows her story to unfold with a clear and open prose with only the occasional painterly flourish, a noir story in grays and mauve. And so it is that this moment in the decades of the 30s and 40s is allowed to come to life in the reader. The history buffs will relish the chrome and crystal of the city’s ballrooms in the finest hotels of the day, savor the hot fresh pastries in the huge waterfront market of that day, and experience some of the grime and hunger of the Hoovervilles and despair of the squalid, barren room’s where a young girl was locked to her iron bed to have her body sold out. They will meet some of the real life characters who shaped Portland: the mostly corrupt lawmen and their partners the mobsters, and the flawed crusader who became its first woman mayor and her churchy, family-first supporters. Also met is a complicated but heroic person from that time, a skilled abortionist, Dr. Ruth Barnett, a nonfictional character unlikely to be met in any novel, but a central figure and guide to the brave, un-glossed direction of Kullberg’s larger theme, for the author is herself a physician who dedicated her career to this city. Dr. Barrett’s work was for years covertly supported by the city fathers, and she was patronized by their privileged wives and girlfriends; but she also saw her duties in the needs of the most destitute and desperate women of that era, and she took her doctor’s bag into the ragged corners of the city’s neglected keep . These cameos from history interact with the fascinating characters of Kullberg’s fertile imagination: the beautiful, half Asian call girl and opiate addict who saves Mae’s life both by showing her the trade and by being her lover and sole “family;” the pious and ambitious DA, deformed by the very success in the alienating and hypocritical society in which he is thriving, who comes to seek out his repressed self as the perverted plaything of a dominatrix; the journalist crippled by polio, a hard bit but redemptive man who tries to offer Mae a new life; Mae herself, and the shopkeepers, grifters, flatfoots and hoboes that make up the buzz and vibrancy of Kullberg’s beloved city.
The story is driven by drama and character; that is, plot with pluck. Indeed, the genius of this book has been to write a history of the mid-century in the style that was typical of a mid-century novel. There is a walking pace to the writing, and each chapter is opened with little psychological residue of the previous.. The idiom of the 30s and 40s here is as well deliberately and (usually) artfully spoken: The women might be classy dames or two-timing floozies; the men might be odd ducks or sappy sad sacks or dreamy Clark Gable types until their chin-flapping from the booze or the goof gives you the meemies. (And some of the client’s sexual proclivities and peccadilloes are as colorfully described in the vernacular of the times.) Her seamless writing in the pace and idiom of a Raymond Chandler does reinforce the story’s credibility, but the author has, for this reader, a deeper, more transformative purpose. Girl in the River is written very much with a 21st century sensibility, with the sensibility, indeed, of a modern feminist. There is no character in the book who might be so-labeled, although a few might be proto-feminists. While they don’t become agents for change in the politics of gender, the author herself has instead done that work. By adapting the noir genre to a feminist vantage Kullberg has re-written history, and she has done so by re-writing and enlarging the genre particular to that history.
Of course Hemingway and Dashiel Hammett would have little to worry about: their beauties and truths will endure; and yet, Girl in the River cannot be dismissed as a man-hating/ man-envious pastiche, and the reason for this is plain to anyone who walks about Portland today. The most fundamental societal differences between what we are living now and what then in that industrial age are not technological in nature; rather, they are born from the political and economic struggles of the last 75 years. Few could argue that women have not been in the forefront of that struggle. And I believe a subtext to this book is that we do live in better times for women, and that progress has proven salutary and maturing for men as well.. As for those men depicted in this book, it is true that none are not broken. The most progressive and mentally healthy is the paraplegic who is to become Mae Rose’s partner in the end. The book speaks to the damage produced by unbridled power and greed, not to the damaging “nature” of men as such..
Despite the suffering and moral complication depicted, it is a story written with great verve and surprising flashes of humor, and it can be seen as something of a love letter by Patricia Kullberg to the city between the rivers, a city whose political progress and growing pains I suspect were essential to the spirit of this book and without which it could not have been written. Girl in the River needs to be experienced by all who live, think, and read.