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HELEN IN TROUBLE by Wendy   Sibbison Kirkus Star


by Wendy Sibbison

Pub Date: July 18th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-73665-063-9
Publisher: Booksmyth Press

A 16-year-old girl’s unexpected pregnancy leads her on a hero’s journey in this 1963-set debut historical novel.

Waking up in a university library with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Quentin Caffrey, after a night of drunken, frat-house partying, prep schooler Helen Bird is panicked, and not just because she missed her chaperone’s curfew. The couple’s unspoken agreement, formed in “their foggy world of wordless decisions,” has been to use coitus interruptus as their only form of birth control, but this time, Helen can’t find the sticky evidence. She says nothing to Quentin. Later, in his dorm room, he contemplates writing her a letter about his mystical, profound “epiphany” that justified not pulling out (it “would be wrong, even evil, a turning away from the sublime”). But his next missive is silent on the subject. As for Helen, she returns home to Arlington, Virginia, and her junior year at St. Joan’s. She figures out (more or less) how to use her mother’s douche bag and hopes for the best but never considers talking to her parent, who also grew up in a family where many important things were unsayable. Her father, too, knows how to bite his tongue, as when forced to write pro–strip mining press releases for his boss, a United States senator. Though she tries to resume her life of propriety, Helen must soon face up to the truth: She’s pregnant, and only an abortion can save her future. It requires the girl to find an inner determination she didn’t know she had, reach out to a friend, trust strangers, and ask for help. Both in the process and its aftermath, these resources come through for her, allowing Helen to make rich connections with feminine strength and caring, finally breaking her and her family’s walls of silence.

In her novel, Sibbison writes thoughtfully about her hero’s dilemma and its cultural, familial, and personal context. For example, Quentin doesn’t buy condoms because that “would make their sex premeditated and Helen a ‘pig.’ No decent, unmarried girl would plan to have intercourse.” Similarly, Helen’s mother has a poignant backstory that makes sense of her reticence: “It was obvious that she was to know nothing. Questions would bring only displeasure, which Rosemary could not risk.” Moral characterization is complex, as when delineating the Birds’ support of the civil rights movement; their sympathy “was real but almost entirely abstract.” Another character, Ilse Gaulden, a young woman who helps arrange abortions, became involved after realizing that civil rights workers were getting pregnant in the name of free love. Since something should be done, Ilse did it. The author does a fine job of tying Helen’s everyday life, during which she must hide every sign of her pregnancy, to the compelling archetypal elements in her experience. The correspondence is especially powerful when—emotionally and literally—the girl must make a tenebrous voyage to Ilse’s rough, ill-lit neighborhood before reaching her destination’s unexpected warmth.

A beautifully written, compassionate coming-of-age tale with subtle mythic overtones.