Gale Massey’s The Girl From Blind River was my July Book of the Month Club selection. It’s a crime novel with a heavy focus on small-town poker. I started reading before my week-long road trip, left it home, and finished it quickly when I returned. It was a quick read but I was glad for the break, because there wasn’t much that I liked about this novel…
About the book: Jamie wants to be a poker star. Her uncle, Loyal, is a sort of poker phenom in Blind River. Jamie and her brother have been living with Loyal for more than eight years, ever since their mother’s arrest. They both want out of the dead-end town, but the only way to raise the funds seems to be helping Loyal with his games and schemes– which aren’t exactly played by the book. It’s a fine line to walk, and if Jamie isn’t careful, she could end up in jail like her mom, or dead, like her dad. After a big win that doesn’t pan out and a big loss that does, there’s another death in town, and Jamie has to decide once and for all whose side she’s on. The stakes are high– losing this bet could cost her entire future, or even her life.
Every now and then I come across a book I’m hesitant to read because I’m afraid I’m not knowledgeable enough about its subject matter to fully appreciate what the book is setting out to accomplish. But generally, enough information is supplied to guide the reader through. Unfortunately, in The Girl from Blind River, that is not the case. This is a book about poker that’s not particularly novice-friendly; as a poker newbie, I found it difficult to glean even from context how the game is played and what certain cards or moves meant for the various players. I came out of this book knowing no more about poker than I did going in.
The problem with that barrier to learning is that the parallels between the game and the overall story were also lost on me. I think that if Massey had offered a bit of educational insight into the game, the character strife going on behind the scenes would have come across as more interesting and significant. There are real-life bluffs and bets and folds for Jamie outside of the hands of poker she plays, but without any real appreciation for the game or understanding of how wins and losses occur, those events didn’t mean a whole lot to me.
Linked to that is the fact that nothing about these characters managed to surprise me. They’re pretty stereotypical, from the trailer park con man to the college drop-out to the motherless violent boy to the do-good cop to the corrupt politician. The chest-oglers are, unsurprisingly, the bad guys. The authority figures who’ve broken the rules once are, unsurprisingly, the ones who’ve been breaking rules all along. Kids who’ve been raised by law-breakers are, unsurprisingly, heading down the same paths themselves. Jamie makes naïve assumptions and learns lessons that are (or at least should be) obvious to the reader: the social worker is not necessarily the bad guy. Thieves have their reasons for stealing. You don’t win every hand, especially at a casino. There’s no future for a relationship with a married man who won’t leave his wife.
There’s no mystery in The Girl from Blind River. There’s a murder, but the reader knows exactly whodunnit and how from the moment it happens, and Jamie knows enough. As the pieces of the puzzle come together, the twists are meant to reveal character rather than shake up the plot– but every character reveals him- or herself to be exactly who the reader expects from the beginning. The biggest surprise, in my opinion, is that these characters have made it eight-plus years without deaths or jail time already. I couldn’t muster respect for any of them as they tried so hard to cheat their way out of holes they dug themselves into. I hope they will not stick with me.
There’s also an overuse of the word “dingy,” which I found mildly annoying. It’s hard to imagine a girl who sleeps on a cot in the storage room of a ramshackle trailer and can’t handle the classes at her local college as describing so many places as “dingy.” The writing simply was not a good fit for me. I didn’t mark a single quote that I wanted to save, but I always like to include a sample of the writing in my review so I had to go back through and find something bearable. This is the best I got:
“What if she was different than them? What if she could shed the past? What if she had her own fate, separate and unknowable? Low on the blue horizon, wild geese flew across the sun. What if there really was something better waiting for her; what if she was moving toward it right now?”
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This was one of my biggest disappointments of the year so far. I could tell right away that I just didn’t like the style and the story wasn’t what I was looking for, and it never improved for me. Poker buffs might have a better time with this novel– there is a story here, and I hope it finds a more appreciable audience, but the only thing that I enjoyed about this reading experience was that it didn’t take long for me to reach the end. It was not a BOTM favorite– better luck next time, I hope. I’m still waiting for my August selection to arrive: David Joy’s The Line That Held Us.
What do you do when you find a literary dud? Do you stop reading, or soldier through hoping to take something from the experience anyway?
The Literary Elephant