Sister Golden Hair

By Darcey Steinke


Tin House Books
October 2014

Reviewed by Marie Curran


Whether or not a girl is prepared, adolescence will happen and her body will transform. She may embrace it, fight it, or wish instead to turn into a unicorn, but inevitably adulthood will be on the horizon. In Darcey Steinke's fifth novel, Sister Golden Hair, it's the early 1970s in Roanoke, Virginia, and Jesse, the preteen protagonist, is hoping for the unicorn. Yet she knows better, and she's keenly aware that in the wake of the wild and liberating sixties, a young woman's world—while changing—is filled with perilous obstacles and men still call the shots. Sister Golden Hair follows Jesse's journey through girlhood and beyond as she idolizes popular kids, clumsily tries on selves, encounters romance, and ultimately discovers her own agency.

Jesse's family has moved to the Bent Tree duplex development in Roanoke after her father, a Methodist pastor, leaves Christianity. Steinke, a pastor's daughter who also spent part of her youth in Roanoke in the 1970s, is no stranger to writing about life after religion, especially for young women, and she does so in clever, surprising prose. And while some of her earlier novels, like Suicide Blonde, chronicle female sexuality explicitly, Sister Golden Hair takes a subtler approach. Steinke captures a specific historical period—Jesse is going through puberty while she's worried about Manson-like characters hunting for women to keep as sex slaves—while exploring still relevant themes, like the question of who has control over women's bodies.

Jesse is straining to belong in a new world outside of the church, yet her efforts often hint at the holy, as when she pushes her unicorn dreams away and becomes obsessed with Sheila, a glamorous Bent Tree peer. "When I walked behind her, I wanted to place my finger on her delicate collarbone. I wanted to ingest her like one of my father's communion wafers and let her instruct me, like Jesus, from the inside." Eucharistic significance appears other places too, though more quietly. After Sheila rejects Jesse, Jesse becomes best friends with the much quirkier Jill. Jill's family undergoes a crisis and runs out of food. Jill, who is convinced God hates her, passes around the last remaining chocolate bar to her siblings and Jesse as they sit on the kitchen floor worrying about the future with only a bottle of apple cider vinegar left in the home.

When Jesse's friendship with Jill ends abruptly and disturbingly, Jesse finds herself alone and leaderless again. The novel skips ahead in time to when Jesse is fifteen, and though her typical teenage behaviors—reading up on fashion, adopting beauty routines, and watching pretty girls for guidance—look passive, her inner life is bubbling with activity. While she listens to the way her peers communicate, she takes note that for girls, talking about anything interesting—like burial rituals, communism, the solar system, or cat psychology—is forbidden; pop culture and beauty routines only. Though she meets some success in improving her social status, and wins Sheila's favor for a bit, she becomes disillusioned as she spends her time talking about boring topics and playing "orgy." When her longtime neighbor Dwayne shows his affections, Jesse realizes she's at risk of losing herself:

Because if Dwayne loved me, I'd be a girl loved by a boy. Once this happened, everyone else would realize I was adorable and loveable too. My eyes would shine, I'd look delicate—even delectable—and whether there was a place for me on earth would no longer be in dispute. I wanted my own story to get going.

Even after this turning point in the novel, however, her newfound will is shaky and she later admits that she'll probably let Dwayne do what he wants to her if he tries.

So goes the novel. Though Jesse stops fetishizing others around her, and does take some small courageous actions, her life disappointingly rolls on in basically the same way, with Jesse blending into her background, observant and quiet. She even acquiesces to a friendship with Pam, the weirdest girl in Bent Tree who is obsessed with Eleanor Roosevelt and follows none of the social rules and entertains Jesse's resurrected, escapist unicorn fantasies. Yet perhaps Jesse's inaction is less of a problem with Sister Golden Hair than it is a sadly accurate portrait of American adolescence, where pop culture and fashion rule as much today as they did forty years ago. When Jesse begins high school, she explains, "I'd expected to be offered Thai stick and to watch girls snort coke in the bathroom off their geometry textbooks. But while there was a strong undercurrent of sex and misery, the students moved subdued through the hallways." And though the novel boasts comedic, sparkly prose and superb imagery throughout, it's actually in this void of inaction, in Jesse's inability to do or be anything meaningful while she is a teenager in the 1970s South, where Steinke's discreet brilliance hides.

At the high school, Jill reappears in a flowing hippie dress. Yet the two girls are incompatible as friends now, and Jill, who has experienced some trauma and undergone a religious conversion, haunts Jesse in the flesh as she prays under the school's flagpole or attempts to explain her feelings to Jesse. Jesse is resistant to her former friend's newfound faith, because it forces her to reckon with her own history: when her father started questioning Christianity, Jesse was ripped away from her own tightknit church community, never to truly fit in anywhere again. If Jesse suffered dearly for God's inexistence, then it's implausible to Jesse that Jill, who made preteen Jesse feel alive and connected, could lose herself to an emotional religiosity after all she has been through. This tension comes to a head in the novel's eerie and powerful resolution, leaving readers with a soundless, piercing image to contemplate.

If Sister Golden Hair is flirting with the divine, then its hymnal is composed of classic rock. Steinke's title alludes to America's 1975 hit "Sister Golden Hair," suggesting myth and romance, and a man desperately needing a woman. Against this backdrop of music, Jesse sees adolescence with a more solemn lens. "It was not unusual for girls to disappear, to turn into stories," she says, "but it was rare for them to come back, to change back again into girls." In Jesse's world, every girl is undergoing irreversible change, a sort of conversion, religious or not. And on the other side, only a few keep their essential selves.