When I was in the YA age range, I spent a lot of time reading interior design books from the 70s and a particular fantasy series that is a little embarrassing to admit. Here are the books I remember reading that were written for my age range:
- Something about a girl getting kidnapped where it’s just her memories of fights with a friend, touch-typed on a typewriter that is missing keys, like a teenage Misery.
- A book that was either The Chocolate Wars or The Outsiders, or possibly both.
- This one where a narrator was convinced that a neighbour was a witch but she was just a breast cancer survivor.
- There’s A Girl in My Hammerlock
I know now, as an adult who went online to find a copy of this book, that Jerry Spinelli is a notable author for this age range and has a Geocities style webpage that includes an autoplay audio. He seems to be liked for how well he handles that shitty age between kid and teen, where everything is too dang much and the rules to life and your identity are so unclear.
For some reason, I owned a copy of There’s A Girl in My Hammerlock. It wasn’t something I would have picked up at the library, or had recommended to me, so I must have grabbed it at a Scholastic book fair because it seemed like it was about tomboys or something and I was desperately anti-girly things as a kid. Or, I picked it up on a total whim and read it because I will read anything that sits still in front of me long enough.
Quick summary: Maisie is a cheerfully aggressive eighth grader and uncomfortable about the idea of performative femininity. Thanks to a crush on a boy that she barely wants to admit to herself, she tries out for cheerleading and doesn’t make the cut. When winter sports roll around, instead of signing up for basketball like she’s done for years, Maisie tries out for the wrestling because her crush is on the team. The story consists of a wrestling season full of other teams refusing to wrestle her, her classmates treating her like some genderless monster and the realisation that crushes and boys are something she’s not ready for or interested yet.
Whatever lead me to first read it, I ended up re-reading it more than any other book aimed at my age group. And here, some twenty-very-plus years later, I still think about it from time to time. What I remember isn’t the solid use of Title IX as a plot device, or the general moral of finding your own way to define yourself. I remember how Maisie described another girl.
Out of the shower room came Tall Tina McIntire, starting center, wet, gleaming, brown, all six feet of her. Standing there naked, the towel just hanging from her hand, like she was daring everyone to stare at her. . . She dripped on over to me. She palmed my head. Her fingers were so long she could have picked both my ears at once. (51)
As a kid who was not into the world of dating that was looming inevitably on the horizon, the way Maisie felt about her crush on a boy—a mixture of disgust and curiosity—was familiar. As a bonus, my subconscious grasped at every hint of queerness I encountered. Tina’s introduction stuck with me longer than any of the nightmares I got from the Goosebumps books I snuck in chunks at friend’s houses.
It was wild re-reading it, there were a tonne of things I’d forgotten about or not picked up in the first place. For one, I’d always assumed Tina was Latinx of some sort, because “brown” as a skin colour was what my dad’s family was, I lived in a very white nowheresville and I was pretty oblivious. It’s obvious now that Tina is Black, and very probably one of the few students of colour at their high school, which adds something extra to her immediate “fuck the haters” support of Maisie. Also, she’s freaking six feet tall in eighth grade. They talk about their girls’ basketball team as being pretty good and no shit, with a center that tall. She would have been about 19 when the WNBA started league play and I like to think she was drafted after college.
Even though it ends up being a key part of act three, I completely forgot that Maisie gets a pet rat, names her Bernadette, and talks to her constantly. As she finds herself emotionally separated from her amazingly supportive family and the gulf between her and her former best friend widens into an impossible crevasse, Bernadette joins Tina in the people Maisie can talk her feelings out with. Like, actually, she has lines.
I would come home from a match, put Bernadette on my desk, flump into my chair.
“A rat’s life, huh?” she would say.
“The bout was great,” I would say. “It’s all the other stuff.”
“Tell me about it.”
I’d tell her about it, for an hour, maybe more. Sometimes I’d cry. With Bernadette I could always cry. (170)
It’s a weird little gem of a book, and all tucked into a framing story, nonetheless. See, the conceit is that Maisie is writing the local paper and there are little sections in serif type that act as prologue, segues and an epilogue where she addresses the editor directly. She’s setting the record straight and sharing her experience in contrast to how the paper covered her story.
And, like, I know that the intended moral of the story is “you get to define what you are, but it’s not easy.” That’s a good thing to teach teens when their world is as unstable as the ice caps. But for baby me, there in the early 90s, I missed that intent completely. What I noticed? How relatable Maisie’s feelings about boys were, and the queer stuff. Definitely the queer stuff.
Let’s look at some of her feelings about her crush, Eric,
I had seen Eric Delong at the pool practically every day during the summer. He was a year ahead of me, going into the ninth grade. Big-shot jock. But he had never meant any more to me than a maggot. Like any other boy. Until now. (11)
Her feelings about Eric keep pulsing in and out, as Maisie starts to focus more on learning to wrestle and trying to manage about one million other feelings beyond the personal betrayal of getting a crush on a boy when you’ve thought of them as useless for most of your life. She barely describes what he looks like. He’s just A Guy that her hormones picked out.
Maisie does finally score a date with Eric after cycling through a boatload of bad advice that included losing a game of H-O-R-S-E. General fact: letting your crush win is bullshit. But that goes to shit kind of predictably. A year older than Maisie and fresh out of the kind of high school relationship where sticking your tongue in your partner’s ear seems like a cool fun thing, he wasn’t going to be a good match.
This was all so incredibly familiar to me then. In general, your body is basically betraying you constantly, like you’re piloting some mecha that got a bad software upgrade. Even if you eventually settle into a place where you’re genuinely interested in guys, that first patch can be rough af. Especially when all the girls you know are so, well, so great.
Here, as a comparison, is a scene of Tina helping Maisie after a particularly hellish wrestling practise:
She kept muttering, “I hope you’re not doing this for him . . . I hope you’re not, girl.”
She got the rest of my clothes off. She steered me to the showers. She turned on a shower and nudged me under it. She stuck a bar of soap in my hand. “That’s as far as I go,” she said.
Once I was under the water, I didn’t want to leave. Tina dragged me out, gave me a towel. The rest of the team was gone.
She hoisted my arms and rolled her deodorant on me. She got me dressed and walked out with me. Until recently, Tina McIntire and I had been mostly sports acquaintances, teammates. It was starting to feel like something more. (113-114)
I KNOW SHE MEANS FRIENDSHIP. And baby me, unaware of any options besides marriage or going full old-maid, definitely thought so as well. But I re-read the scenes with Tina a lot. You know, just because friendship is so wonderful, right?!
Listen, if you were a small-town kid who ended up being queer, you know what I mean.
I’m basically 100% certain that when Jerry Spinelli was penning There’s a Girl In My Hammerlock, he wasn’t aware he was writing a book that would resonate on low frequencies only isolated queer kids could hear, but I’m glad he did. It’s a good little book.
Also published on Medium.