“Nickels Worth Every Penny”
by Katie Hae Leo
first published in Rochester Post-Bulletin 12-12-11
Dissociation is defined as a mental process that produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity, which is brought on by trauma. In her debut novel Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation (Modern History Press), Minneapolis-based author Christine Stark deftly creates this state of mind through the use of dizzying, experimental prose that maps the territory of childhood abuse as well as the long, difficult, and ultimately redemptive journey to healing.
Nickels follows a biracial girl named Little Miss So and So from age 4-½ into adulthood. Told in a series of prose poems, the story introduces this allegorically-named protagonist when she is already experiencing unspeakable sexual abuse at the hands of her father. We meet her mother, a simultaneously sympathetic and abhorrent character who is both co-victim of the father’s abuse and co-conspirator in the family’s silence around it. We accompany Little Miss So and So on visits to child protection court, a foster parent home, and of course, school. We follow her through her teen years and into adulthood, as she tries to make sense of a world in which normality has been defined by cruelty and lies. We cheer her through her first tender, painful experience with love and watch her grow into a talented athlete and artist.
Through Stark’s stream-of-consciousness writing, we see the world through So and So’s eyes, lush with imagination and innocent curiosity, punctuated by daily acts of violence, beyond-her-years strength and survival skills, and a parade of adults who, even in their best intentions, just add to her exploitation. Through it all, Stark’s astonishing prose allows readers to access So and So’s most intimate thoughts in constantly surprising ways.
Make no mistake: this is at times a hard book to read. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Sapphire’s Push, it lays bare the reality of human suffering. However, Stark’s writing achieves something altogether new. It allows us a glimpse into the perceptive, multidimensional, and startlingly rich dissociative mind, in which the past can suddenly seem more real than the present and even the smallest detail can trigger overpowering memories, so that the impossibly hopeful conclusion feels all the more earned and satisfying.