Growing up in Blue-Collar Pennsylvania
Karen Dietrich grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Connellsville, home to the Anchor Glass factory that employed many of the town’s residents, both her parents among them. In 1985, when Karen was eight years old, a factory employee named Sonny brought a gun into the factory and shot four supervisors, killing them before turning the gun on himself. The shooting spree and subsequent fallout from the incident cast an understandable pall over the Dietrich and her family, not to mention the entire town.
Coming as it does in the third chapter of this 29-chapter memoir, a reader might be forgiven for thinking that this event will be the focus of the book. But no; Dietrich discusses it with surprising briefness before moving on to other concerns of her childhood self: beauty pageants and dinner table arguments, superstitions and family vacations and, through it all, her fraught relationship with her mother. Like many girls, Dietrich had a less-than-ideal relationship with her mother, and it turns out that this is what the author wishes to write about more than anything else.
For a good while, though, this focus is less than clear. Dietrich is a nimble and likeable guide through the early years of her life, and we are carried along through her many preoccupations and escapades – her neighbor friend Samuel, her anxiety about serial killers, her up-and-down relationship with her sisters. Later there will be boys and masturbation and boys and sex and boys. There will also be lots of self-consciousness about her looks, and struggles to figure out what it is exactly that society expects from girls.
Don’t be fooled, though: this is a book about Dietrich and her mother. Which is fine, as her mother is intriguing enough, as is Dietrich herself, and the troubled interactions between the two make for some engaging reading. Dietrich’s authorial voice is direct and to the point, even when weaving elaborate metaphors. (Her euphemism for masturbation is “reaching the dew point”, which manages to be both sweet and smutty at the same time).
Early scenes are imbued with a kind of straightforward simplicity appropriate to a child’s consciousness: “We’ve been learning about weather in school, about the weather cycle, how rain evaporates, becomes the soft white bodies of clouds, how steam condenses into water, how the process never ends.” Later, we are told that “The only detail about my birth my mother can recall with certainty is talking to a nurse about her nail polish.”
As the narrator grows older, though, teen angst sets in and the tone becomes darker. Boys and sex become a preoccupation, and sex seems less like a source of pleasure and more like a weapon to use to get back at parental expectations. “The boys are tipsier than the girls, with Eric bordering on falling-down drunk. Right now he’s got Bobbi Jo pinned to the couch, writhing on top of her like a snake while she pants softly.” High school friends are gained and shed as swiftly as boys and clothes, with Dietrich maintaining her position as outsider/outcast even as she apparently, has plenty of (mis)adventures that might seem unlikely for a true loner: drinking parties and late-night trysts and so on.
It’s always tough to criticize a memoir – this is someone’s life after all, so show a little respect – but it’s also necessary. After all, an autobiography is as artificial a construct as any other piece of art; a memoir, which purports to be true, is every bit as manufactured and edited as a novel or a poem or a comic book about talking animals with super powers.
So it’s a shame, then, that The Girl Factory, which begins with a bang – literally – as a disgruntled worker murders a number of supervisors and co-workers, ends up with so little to say about the incident. Sure, there are some mentions of it as Dietrich grows older and has occasion to remember events from time to time, but considering how harrowing the ordeal must have been, there is surprisingly little weight given to it later on.
This applies equally to other contemporaneous events, which given the time frame would have included such trivialities as the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the first Gulf War, and the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s almost as if, the older the narrator gets, the more inward and self-absorbed she becomes, whereas you might expect rather the opposite: that as a person gets older, his/her worldview would actually expand to take in events from the larger context.
This pattern even applies late in the book, when Dietrich goes to college. For many, college is a time of engaging with larger issues for the first time, whether political or social or environmental. Not here though: Dietrich is primarily concerned with having a social life, not being alone, dealing with her boyfriend at home. This might be perfectly accurate – hell, it’s a memoir, so it probably is. After a time, though, one starts to wonder why exactly one is reading this. There’s no particular insight here, nothing to suggest a unique worldview or particularly valuable experience. It’s a book about growing up in small-town America. That’s fine… I guess.
Dietrich’s sentence-level writing is what saves it: crisp and readable, it trundles along jauntily and asks little of us, so we go along for the ride. It’s diverting enough, demanding little and offering back a modest return. Readers looking for something deeper, however, are apt to be disappointed.