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'Women and Children First' is a tale about how actions and choices affect others

Zando — SJP Lit

Toward the beginning of Alina Grabowski's kaleidoscopic debut Women and Children First, 16-year-old Jane Ryder rides her bike through the rain-slicked streets of Nashquitten, a fictional town on the Massachusetts coast, south of Boston. It's a Saturday morning in May, and the smell of "seaweed and crab shells" hangs in the air — Jane's street has flooded due to a cracked seawall that the town won't repair "because it's on the side of the beach where people actually live, as opposed to the side where people 'summer.'"

As Jane bikes past the "Murder Merge" onto the town's single highway, where a thicket of white flags memorialize the teenagers who died in car wrecks, she thinks about the kids she's seen taking selfies there, "writing long captions about childhood and angels and the fragility of life...holding each other close...because they wondered what it would be like if they died, if they would be called funny or nice or smart or handsome or hot." Jane knows that in a town like Nashquitten, where a half a dozen high school students have died in the past five years, where opioids are easy to cop and people regularly disappear, no one is remembered for long.

What Jane doesn't know is that the night before, as the rain blew into town, her classmate Lucy Anderson died under mysterious circumstances at a house party, and that this tragedy will upend her community and form a testament to its interconnectedness.

The puzzle of Lucy's death propels Women and Children First, but Grabowski's novel is not a thriller or a whodunit. The novel unfolds in ten chapters, split down the middle between "Pre" and "Post" Lucy's death, each narrated in the first person by a different Nashquitten girl or woman linked in some way to the tragedy, from classmate Jane to college counselor Layla to best friend Sophia to mother Brynn. The narrators form a Greek chorus telling this tale of a fractured, grieving community, their constellation of perspectives gradually offering shards of how Lucy died and who she was. Through her pitch-perfect summoning of this intergenerational female cast, Grabowski explores the fickleness of truth, the fallibility of memory, how difficult it is to really see those closest to us, and how easy it is to betray one another.

Grabowski's choice to set Women and Children First in the fictional Nashquitten is a smart one. In this parochial community, everyone's lives overlap, creating perfect conditions for a novel that depends on a web of interwoven perspectives. Grabowski clearly drew on her own upbringing in Scituate, Mass. — another insular South Shore town battered by coastal erosion and flooding — in shaping her setting, though Nashquitten is more worn down at the heels. It's a heavily Catholic fishing town dominated by a withering middle class; those who remain are stuck there because of thwarted ambitions.

Through the shards of the narrators' stories and memories, we learn that Lucy had dreams of escape. Those who knew Lucy thought of her as an artist who painted on massive canvases with water from tide pools and turned her bedroom wall into a mural with "a swirl of ocean colors." Through Layla, we learn that Lucy had ambitions of going to school in New York; later, Sophia tells us that Lucy imagined the city as a place where "you can be whoever you want," unlike Nashquitten, where "anything you do becomes this stain that sticks to you forever." Lucy's stain was her epilepsy — she'd had a seizure on the floor of a school bus earlier that year, and one of her classmates filmed it and soundtracked the video "to an EDM song whose beat matched the shaking of her body."

The night Lucy died, she was at a party with the classmate she believed made the video, talking about him with two other girls before she fell to her death off an unfinished deck. Did she have another seizure? Was she pushed? Was it an accident? Was it suicide?

As Women and Children First unfolds, Grabowski gradually brings the reader closer to Lucy while planting seeds that any sense of the truth of what happened to her will ultimately be asymptotic. Her narrators' stories are at times contradictory, revealing how their perspectives and memories are blinkered by their own biases and experiences. As I read, I kept flipping back to earlier chapters, re-contextualizing each girl or woman's story, underlining the ringing moments of insight that Grabowski has a knack for, like, "We're always in the paths of others, but it can be disorienting to reconcile that proximity with the impenetrability of a stranger's choices," or, "when someone disappears without explanation, you have the power to determine what happened to them."

Ultimately, the novel is less about the mystery of Lucy and more about how our actions impact one another, even when — especially when — we think we lack agency. The women and girls of Nashquitten tend toward self-preservation, even selfishness. The older women especially have learned how hard it is to hold men to account, and instead try to protect their daughters, even when it means hurting others. Maureen, the PTA president who seeks absolution at confession for choices she can't forgive herself for, believes that her daughter's generation will never understand "that we were never girls, not really. For a moment we were children, yes. But a girl and a child are not the same. A child is a pet. A girl is prey."

This is not to say that Women and Children First presents a bleak vision of human nature. At the center of the novel, a teenager named Marina retells a story that Grabowski herself grew up hearing, about Rebecca and Abigail Bates of Scituate, "the American Army of Two." "The duration of the tale reminds me that the actions of two girls can have a lasting effect on many," Grabowski writes in her acknowledgments. Rebecca and Abigail were the daughters of the lighthouse keeper, left in charge one day during the War of 1812; when they spotted a British warship approaching, they played their fife and drum so fiercely that the soldiers thought an army was awaiting them on the shore. When Marina's mother first told her the story, the girl called it fake. "And if I was lying? How does that change the story?" her mother quipped back. Women and Children First serves as a reminder that not only do our actions and choices effect change, but so too do our stories.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Kristen Martin