Goodreads and I became good friends in the spring of 2009. Before that, we were casual acquaintances; I would check in every now and again and add a book about that often. But in 2009, I suddenly caught the vision and realized that Goodreads was not only a great way to keep track of what I had read but also what I wanted to read. I started shelving books that friends told me about or that I heard about through a blog or website. Suddenly, I no longer had to rack my brain, “Now didn’t Sarah just mention a good book? What was the title again? Something about a princess? Or was it a pioneer?” I no longer said things like, “Oh, I like to read. I just never know what to read.” Now I always have dozens of options to choose from, and I can pick something that fits my current mood.
Once I decided that Goodreads would save (and also help me waste) a ton of time and frustration, one of the first books I added to my to-read list was A Girl Named Zippy (on April 5, 2009, to be exact). I can no longer remember what prompted me to save it (I definitely could be better about noting where recommendations come from), but there it has sat for years while other books last only a couple of weeks or never make it on my to-read list at all before I start reading them. It hardly seemed fair, so when this book was selected for my book club in August, it offered the perfect excuse to grant it a coveted spot among the “currently reading” books.
And that long, pretty-much-pointless introduction probably knocked off all but my die-hard readers. Sorry about that.
Haven Kimmel grew up in a small town (pop. 300) in Indiana. She was nicknamed Zippy after her dad saw a “zippy” monkey on television. The book is a collection of memories and stories, mishaps and adventures from her childhood.
I know that summary sounds bland and boring, but let me assure you that Haven Kimmel’s writing is anything but. It is sassy and spunky and saucy with a good deal of irreverence thrown in (just read the chapter “Haunted Houses” if you don’t believe me). It was one of those books where I kept thinking, The small-town adventures of a seven-year-old girl shouldn’t be this captivating, but they are! Haven’s own sister, Melinda, thought that the only person who would choose to read such a book would be “a person lying in a hospital bed with no television and no roommate. Just lying there. Maybe waiting for a physical therapist. And then here comes a candy striper with a squeaky library cart and on that cart there is only one book--or maybe two books: yours, and Cooking with Pork. I can see how a person would be grateful for Mooreland then.”
When people say that their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about, I can no longer believe them. Their lives are probably plenty interesting; it’s just the way they present it that could use some work. As humans, I think we all have this innate desire to eavesdrop and spy on the lives of other people. If this were not the case, facebook would never have taken off and gossiping wouldn’t be such a difficult habit to break. In the case of A Girl Named Zippy, I loved it because of the parts I could relate to (growing up in a small town) and also because of the parts I couldn’t relate to (the 70’s, her home life, etc.).
I somewhat suspect that many of her stories were heavily embellished: there were so many details and so much dialogue that unless she was keeping a daily journal from the time she turned two, a completely accurate portrayal of such an early time in her life would probably have been impossible.
But did I really want a perfectly honest accounting? No. If she had only allowed herself to include details that she was certain of, I can almost guarantee this memoir would have been as dry as dust. Instead, I think she was trying to capture what it felt like to be herself in the 1970’s, and I think she was 100% successful with this. For example, one of the chapters recounts details from her family’s standard summer vacation: camping in their trailer. She said her father was always very meticulous with getting the trailer fitted and stocked and in good working order before they left. One of their pre-camping rituals was to make sure all of the lights on the camper worked as they were supposed to. While describing one particular trip, she said, “It took us longer than usual to get to Tall Trees, because twice I fell out of the top bunk with such a crash that Dad pulled over on the side of the road to make sure I wasn’t broken, and then before we could pull back on the the highway we had to test the lights.”
Now did they really test the lights every time they made a stop? Maybe. Maybe not. But do you think that’s how little Zippy felt when all she wanted to do was get to their destination while her father seemed totally bent on not getting there? Most definitely. That’s what made this writing so entertaining but also so accessible.
But speaking of perceptions and the strength of memories, this book made me wonder what my boys will remember from their childhoods in 30 years? Specifically, what will they remember about me? Zippy talks about her mother in an affectionate but also condescending way. In almost every story, her mother is reading on the couch while the house falls to ruin and she is unaware of her children’s whereabouts. Whether this is entirely true or not, this is what got logged away in Zippy’s memory. And my boys are forming their own memories every day (which I can only hope will someday not be published in a memoir!).
I’ve been trying to figure out why I loved Haven Kimmel’s writing so much, and I think it boils down to this: it was simple without being unimaginative and clever without being glaring. She captured the small-town, little-girl language and made it sound like an intelligent adult was writing it. I loved how she could end a chapter with a sentence as simple as “It would be another warm night,” but because of what came before, that one sentence suddenly sounded nostalgic and profound. I also loved all of the truly insightful metaphors she used, such as this one: “Dana turned to see the shot fall, then looked back at me. She issued a sound I’d heard dogs make at each other when they really wanted to fight but also had to finish their dinner.” Her metaphors always seemed to be appropriate to the setting while adding to my overall impression and picture of her childhood.
This book ends when Zippy is still in grade school. The last story is great (Christmas, Santa, dreams coming true and all that), but it felt very unfinished. What happens when Zippy reaches high school and begins to mature and grow up? Luckily, I found out there’s a sequel: She Got Up Off the Couch. You can bet I’m going to be reading it (I already put it on my to-read list!).
My one regret about this book is that I didn’t get to go to book club and discuss it with everyone. So sad! If anyone wants to have a mini-book discussion, feel free to start one in the comments!