“Girl from Blind River,” by Gale Massey

Gale Massey

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Florida writer Gale Massey’s debut novel, Girl from Blind River, is being compared to Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. The comparison is apt. Both feature a teenage girl determined to help family members survive in a community roiled by poverty and addiction.

Nineteen-year-old Jamie Elders is caught between conflicting desires: to take care of her younger brother Toby and to escape from the dying town of Blind River, New York. She is surrounded by unreliable adults, including her abusive Uncle Loyal who runs poker scams, a mother newly released from prison, and a corrupt but powerful judge. Their flaws force Jamie to become exceptionally self-reliant.

Before her incarceration, Jamie’s mother taught her all the legitimate skills needed to win at poker—and a few underhanded tricks as well. A poker savant, Jamie hopes to parlay her talent into a huge payoff, enabling her to leave town. She earns our sympathy because she does her best to care for seventeen-year-old brother Toby in her mother’s absence. Jamie encourages him to finish high school and to control his angry urges. At times, her efforts seem futile. Often drunk and violent, Toby does little to help himself. He lashes out at the world that separated him from his mother and at a culture unlikely to accept him as he is.

Suspense builds as one obstacle after another arises to anchor Jamie to her dysfunctional family and to the town where the Elders’ reputation as unsavory cheats is thoroughly entrenched. A thief and cheat herself, it seems unlikely that Jamie will rise above her upbringing. Though intelligent, she makes mistake after mistake. Events spiral out of control, pulling her ever deeper into her uncle’s criminal world. Eventually, she learns what readers have suspected all along: that Uncle Loyal is far less loyal to her and Toby than she thought.

One adult emerges as a possible ally: Police Detective Carl Garcia. Jamie’s first instinct toward Garcia is mistrust. After all, the legal system locked up her mother and is responsible for placing her and Toby in a ratty trailer under her uncle’s dubious supervision. The poker scams Uncle Loyal runs with Jamie’s help are illegal—not to mention more violent crimes her family commits. Like assault. And murder. People in her family run from the law, not towards it. But when Jamie’s world is on the verge of collapse, Garcia just might be the only one who can help.

This fast-paced, beautifully written novel serves as a valuable glimpse into the world of gambling addiction, but achieves so much more than that. Massey’s descriptions of the desolate landscape of a rundown, blue-collar town are devastating in their accuracy, from the dirt yard in front of Uncle Loyal’s trailer to the wind slamming across the field and shaking the trailer’s foundations to smelly runoff from the fertilizer plant. The pizza boxes tossed on the floor, the cigarette butts, empty bottles, garbage cans, lingering odors of smoke and whiskey—all the details punch home why Jamie wants to escape. You can’t help but root for her—and pity all those left behind.

Gale Massey lives in St. Petersburg, FL. Her stories have appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, Walking the Edge, Sabal, Seven Hills Review, and other journals. She has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships at The Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Writers in Paradise, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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