‘Little Girl Gone’
In the second bloom of a writing career that has spawned 17
novels, Drusilla Campbell writes passages, such as this: “Madora Welles was twelve when she learned
that some girls are lucky in life, others not so much. … No lucky girl ever had a father who walked
into the desert and put a bullet in his brain.”
That’s no way to open a novel, but it’s a hellish world Campbell crafts in “Little Girl Gone” (Grand Central, $14.99), and this passage portends much.
At 17, Madora is on the road to trouble: with boys, with drugs, with a life knocked off course by paternal suicide and a mother who failed to recover from the parting shot. Enter Willis, savior. “Don’t be afraid little girl, Willis won’t let anything happen to you,” the savior says.
And so begins a story of co-dependency, a desert life lived in isolation with the only shade filtered through the ever-present shadow of abuse. The one bright spot: a troubled 12-year-old boy, Django, who recognizes Willis for what he is — and Madora for what she could become.
Then, like the summer Arizona air that encapsulates Madora, the plot thickens. Madora isn’t the little girl gone: She left by choice.
Driving the novel is Willis’ other saving grace, Linda, the pregnant girl he, and by association and action Madora, “rescues” from the street and keeps locked in a trailer behind the desert home.
In a right-brain sense of chivalry, Willis is saving Linda from a life of abandonment. In a left-brain sense of self-preservation, home health-care worker Willis’ plan is to sell the baby to help finance his dream of attending medical school.
To Willis and his troubled past — everyone in this novel has a troubled past: don’t we all, the novelist implies — this makes sense. To the reader, this makes Willis difficult to make sense of. What should we feel for this emasculator of women?
“You tell me,” Campbell said during a phone interview from her San Diego home. “I’m tired of books where the bad guy is so bad that you have to be equally bad to have any sympathy for him. My view of Willis is that he is warped, but in his heart of hearts he is doing something good for the girls. He’s a sociopath, but what we learn with most sociopaths is that they didn’t start out bad. To me, he is horrible, what he did was monstrous, but at the same time he was a sympathetic character for me.”
He is also a character, as are Madora, Linda and Django, inspired by Campbell’s observations of the world around her.
“There have been a number of cases in the last five to 10 years involving men who kept girls captive in basements,” Campbell said. “So often there is a female best friend involved in this. I’ve often wondered, how is it that a woman could live with some who kept another woman captive? I was interested in the rationalization. … There has to be a twisted linking between the man and the woman. There is a kind of need that keeps them together. The question is, what is that need? It could be pathological, neurosis, a need for a father.”
Whatever it is, it fuels a novel that showcases an author whose writing borders on lyricism.
Consider the thoughts of Django as he reflects on the still-raw feelings about the death of his mother:
“Though the sadness when he thought of her was almost unbearable, even worse was the fear that he would stop remembering. He wanted to remember everything she had ever said, the tone of her voice and the way she looked when she said it; but already he felt her going, losing substance, like a dream slipping away in the morning air. Or a symphony, its rich and complex orchestration dropping off, instrument by instrument. One day all that would remain of his mother would be a haunting one-finger melody and eventually even that would vanish.”
“I’m very fond of this passage,” Campbell said. “One of the things in the book I’m most pleased with is that it said exactly what I wanted to say. I’m not a lyrical writer by nature. I’m a direct writer.
There are some parts of the story that call for more lyricism. Like this part — a boy longing for his mother.”
It takes more than a poet to write such prose. It takes a skilled artisan who has honed her craft during decades of labor, which is what Campbell has done. Although it was about two decades between published novels No. 10 and No. 11, the dearth has been rewarded with six novels in publication since 2001. In that number is included 2010’s “The Good Sister,” a book named a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association and the top-award winner at the 17th annual San Diego Book and Writing Awards in June.
The recognition from readers matters, Campbell said, because of the intensity of the work in crafting a novel.
“It can be very isolating,” she said. “I have to cannibalize my own emotions in order to write. That can be very difficult. I have to trust at some point that it’s going to be OK, that I’m going to get to the end of the book. It’s like faith. Sometimes the world seems like it’s going to hell and you want to give up on everything. What keeps me going is trust.”
To talk about that trust, and her novels, including “Little Girl Gone” released in late January, Campbell makes herself available to readers’ groups.
“That includes telephone appearances,” Campbell said. “It’s so much fun. Talking with readers makes my writing better.”
To have your group help Campbell with her next work, visit the author’s website at http://www.drusillacampbell.com.