- History Lesson for Girls
Aurelie Sheehan's novel History Lesson for Girls leaped into the public eye soon after its release, when Oprah recommended it as a 2006 summer read. People Magazine boosted its reputation with a positive nod. Such mainstream attention is indicative of the novel's accessible appeal as a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale that chronicles a traumatic year in a young girl's life. The book follows Sheehan's sweet-natured first novel, The [End Page 185] Anxiety of Everyday Objects (2004), and her eclectic collection of stories, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant (1994).
History Lesson for Girls underscores the notion that history is a malleable, living entity, a vital touchstone that connects our past with our present. Narrated from the vantage point of adulthood, the novel unfolds through the eyes of Alison, who vividly recalls 1975, her thirteenth year, "the year we moved to Weston, the year my parents went haywire, the year my back started curving out of control." In that transitive time between child and teen, an awkward corrective brace for scoliosis makes Alison a target of ridicule at school. Popular Kate throws her an unexpected lifeline, the only classmate to befriend—and defend—Alison against rude gibes from insensitive girls and boys in her affluent Connecticut community.
The girls bond at a pivotal age when emotional and physical changes churn in concert with awakening hormones. Kate is graceful and brazen, smoking cigarettes, drinking and ditching school on a whim. Alison, bound neck-to-waist in medical armor, seeks solid footing in an unfamiliar town. While the girls are dissimilar in appearance—opposites in many ways—they both hail from dysfunctional families and share a passion for horses. Alison's parents are united in concern about her physical well-being, but their marriage falters as they bicker over everything else. Kate's family is wealthy but scarred by a bullying, egocentric father whose riches derive from his role as a "new age" shaman. Instead of safe harbors, both households are tension-laden dens of discomfort and pain. For Alison and Kate, horses, not family, provide solace and sustenance. When something traumatic happens, racing on horseback offers intense, albeit temporary, relief. In fact, it is on horseback that the girls are most at ease with each other, and with the world. But life, of course, with its myriad complications cannot be outrun. Soon enough, change alters the course.
This novel, we come to understand, is history in the making—a living tribute to the memory of a childhood friend never forgotten: "The thing is, [Kate] saved me that year, and then it was my turn. That's what friendship is. That's how to make history." In looking back, Alison not only puts the tragic year in perspective but pays homage to a lost friend, bearing witness to and embracing a life that might otherwise have slipped unappreciated and unsung into the foggy mist of time. "Because it matters," Alison reflects as the novel [End Page 186] winds to a finish. "Our history," she adds, as if to emphasize the expansiveness of "our," a word that circles all of us in a broad, timeless, embrace.