By Heidi Simmons
by Emma Cline
Charles Manson didn’t kill Sharon Tate, her unborn baby or her close friends. His followers did the horrific crime. Part of the fascination around Manson was how he was able to manipulate those in his “family.” Why would sweet, young girls, some from good families, have such brutal disregard for human life. How did they turn so evil?
Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls (Random House, 362 pages) tells a fictional tale of one girl and her emotional need to belong.
The story begins in 1969. Evelyn “Evie” Boyd lives with her mother in Petaluma, California. She is 14 years old and her mother has already made arrangements for her to attend a private boarding school in the fall.
Evie is the granddaughter of a once famous movie star. Her mother and father have divorced and Evie rarely sees or talks to her dad. She spends the summer riding her bike and hanging out with her best friend Connie. The two have very little in common other than they have been awkward outsiders since grammar school. Evie finds herself losing interest in Connie.
One day out riding her bike, Evie stops in the park where she observes several girls in torn, hippy clothing, running loose and acting wild. They hold hands, dance and laugh. The girls pay no attention to anyone else. Evie is intrigued by their closeness and joyful abandon.
Later, Evie is riding her bike home and sees the girls dumpster diving for food. They grab what they can and then quickly board a black school bus waiting for them in the alley.
Evie soon encounters one of the girls, Suzanne, up close in a drug store. Suzanne is shooed out of the store for stealing. Evie buys what the girl tried to steal and takes it to her. Very little is said. Suzanne is 19 years old.
When Evie’s bike breaks down, the black school bus stops and the girls get out to help. Evie ends up getting on the bus with her bike. The girls are friendly. They are affectionate and Evie can’t ever remember when she was hugged and touched so much or the center of such direct, considerate attention.
Evie decides to stay with the girls at the groups ranch. Her mom doesn’t seem to care where she is. Evie is intrigued to meet Russell, the cult’s religious leader. Meeting Russell, Evie feels beautiful and important. There are all kinds of interesting people showing up and Evie finds a place for herself within the family. She likes the communal living space and work. Russell tells her she’s special and they have sex.
Russell considers himself a singer songwriter and wants a record deal, but when his famous musician friend can’t deliver a contract, he goes mad.
One night, the girls are told to go to the musician’s house. Evie tags along mainly because she wants to be with Suzanne. But, half way there, Suzanne kicks her to the street. It is the night of the horrendous Manson-like killings.
The next day, Evie can only sit and watch the terrible news. She knows who did it, but she is afraid and ashamed. Evie keeps her secret and it’s months before police catch up to Russell and the girls.
Evie narrates her story as a middle-aged woman looking back at her experience. She lives with some notoriety as one of “Russell’s girls.” Over the years, Evie has been mentioned in a few books and articles about the cult. Now she lives alone. She has no family and never married. Evie considers how she got caught up with Suzanne and the other girls.
Author Cline does a great job entering the 1969 world of a lonely teen on the cusp of womanhood. Through Evie, the reader gets a glimpse of how difficult being a teenager is without the grounding love and support of engaged parents. She is adrift, sexually curious and interested in what other girls do. Evie yearns for family and respect.
Evie is tired of feeling weak and longs to be confident and strong. Every woman in Evie’s life becomes a study for Evie. She desires to better understand what it means to be a girl, a woman, female. Evie believes she finds acceptance with the cult. She is admired and appreciated. For her it’s almost a magical life. But she is very naive.
The Girls is an amazing debut novel, thoughtful and introspective. Author Cline delivers a compelling narrative about the challenges that young girls face. Setting the narrative into a world like that of Charles Manson’s, makes for a fascinating, and somewhat familiar psychological drama.
There are many ways the story could have gone, more thriller or more danger. But author Cline is writing about “the girls.” The story belongs to Evie, not the cult or cult leader Russell. Evie’s life is forever changed by the experience.
In many ways, this is a story about how females are susceptible to being used, abused and their identity sexually defined rather than perceived and treated respectfully simply as another human being living on this planet.