A Girl's Own Story

By Charlotte Abbott

Originally published on Advocate.com September 24 2008 12:00 AM ET

Coming-of-age
stories will always retain appeal for gay people. They
remind us that we can emerge whole from family dysfunction
-- even when queerness is seen as an unforgivable sin
-- and that the unique unhappiness of other families
can be fascinating.

Big New York
publishing houses aim most of these types of novels at the
teen market. So it’s refreshing to find that
Backslide, by Teresa Stores, was written for
adults. Don’t let the uninspired brown-and-red cover
deceive you: The story, published by indie press
Spinsters Ink, illustrates in living color what it was
like to grow up as a Southern Baptist in the ’60s,
navigating the bumpy road from loneliness and sexual denial
to self-assurance.

The outlines of
Virge Young’s fictional journey -- from an earnest
young churchgoer smothered in polyester and panty hose
to a spiky blond lesbian mother who defends her
lifestyle on national TV -- are both familiar and
idealized. But it’s the depth of Stores’s
characterizations of the protagonist’s friends
and family that give Backslide its resonance.

Told largely in
flashback, the book centers on Virge’s youth in
Jacksonville, Fla., in a working-class family, where she
tries -- and fails -- to make herself invisible to her
iron-fisted father. When Virge brings home her best
friend, Ricki Ann, her father is enraged by the
girl’s flirty blue eye shadow and tight
“Snoopy for President” T-shirt, which he
deems “unpatriotic.” But those charms
aren’t lost on Virge, who agrees to practice
kissing with Ricki Ann because they’re about to enter
junior high and “should be all ready.”
It’s a familiar scenario, yet full of yearning
that becomes even more palpable after Ricki Ann drops Virge
for more popular friends the following school year.
It’s to Stores’s credit that Ricki Ann
remains as vivid and shrewd a foe as she was a friend.

In one of the
novel’s most memorable scenes, Virge gets dropped off
to pass out religious pamphlets in the suburb where
the kids with the coolest clothes and Brady
Bunch
hairstyles live. Armed with a handful of
“One Way to Heaven” leaflets, she has three
blistering summer hours to fill leading poor souls to
the Lord -- though Virge is smart enough to tell
herself that “even if Rolling Hills has some lost
souls, none of them are poor.” Sure enough, she
runs into three popular girls from school, tanning in
their bikinis and itching to tease her.

Alternately,
Virge finds respite with Miriam Rosenbaum, a Holocaust
survivor who teaches her more about kindness and moral
ambiguity than she’s ever learned in church;
and Mel, a Baptist black girl from school, who
challenges her father’s bigotry. These nuanced
friendships force her to dig deep inside herself. And
while she finds unexpected support from her devout and
yielding mother, Virge begins to face the gnawing fear
that she’s backsliding from being
“saved.”

Threaded
throughout Virge’s struggle for self-confidence are
vignettes from her 25-year high school reunion, where
she encounters many former classmates. Some of these
meetings are more emotionally satisfying than it might
be reasonable to expect from real life, and some lose their
punch amid lengthy flashbacks. But by the end of the novel
we don’t doubt Virge’s hard-won
self-acceptance, or that it came both because and in
spite of her upbringing.