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Local author writes on issues, perspectives of young women

  • Worthington author Ruth Lehrer’s debut novel, “Being Fishkill,” was recently praised by Entertainment Weekly as “the year’s most heartwarming, heartbreaking teen novel.” CONTRIBUTED BY K. VORCE PHOTOGRAPHY



For The Recorder
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

During a series of drives with her partner, Amy, through Duchess County in New York a few years back, Ruth Lehrer had to laugh when the couple kept passing a sign for the town of Fishkill, a few miles east of the Hudson River. It was not unfamiliar ground — Lehrer had grown up partly in New Paltz, N.Y., about 30 miles north of Fishkill — but the name was still a source of amusement.

“We talked about how funny it might be if someone named their kid after the town,” she said.

Lehrer, of Worthington, liked the idea so much she decided to use it as the basis for a story — and some three years later, her debut novel, “Being Fishkill,” is earning good reviews, including a glowing note in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly.

The Young Adult novel, published by Candlewick Press of Somerville, is a bittersweet tale of a 13-year-old girl named Carmel Fishkill, after an exit sign along New York’s Taconic Parkway; the name has come by way of the girl’s dissolute young mother, who gave birth to her daughter in a car while passing the road sign.

The story, narrated by the young teen, is both bracingly funny and often achingly sad, as it describes her efforts to overcome a lifetime of poverty, verbal abuse and neglect.

In her first-person narration, Carmel begins her story by describing how she got her birth name. But she quickly explains how she also makes the decision, when she enters seventh grade, to reverse it so that she can present a new, tougher profile to her bullying classmates.

“I decided … I would own that hard-sounding last name. Fish — cold and scaly. Kill — dangerous, you-don’t-want-to-(mess)-with-me dangerous. I would be Fishkill Carmel.”

Fishkill’s sarcastic, world-weary voice is a memorable one, whether used as a foil to puncture the absurdities of life in middle school and the behavior of adults, or as a shield to maintain her tough-girl persona and bury her pain.

For Lehrer, a poet who is also a longtime American Sign Language interpreter, it was a voice she simply followed to craft her novel.

“(Fishkill) showed up fully formed,” she said in a recent phone call from her home. “She was her own person. When I started writing, I knew the book was right on the edge between Young Adult and adult fiction, but I felt I didn’t need to worry about which it should be because her voice just seemed so strong.”

Lehrer said she’d written a previous, unpublished novel but that her new one “is much better.” And though she says the characters of “Being Fishkill” are not based on specific people she knows or has met, she notes that the story does draw to some extent on her experience as a sign-language interpreter.

As she explains, her job takes her into a variety of settings, including private homes, where she’s translating for people who are often “outside the mainstream,” struggling financially and trying to navigate complex issues such as medical care.

“I see a lot of people who are dealing with things that are not necessarily common to a lot of us,” Lehrer said. “There are situations where parents are under a lot of stress, where there can be real cultural misunderstandings … I feel like I’m really lucky to be able to see these kind of different scenarios and to help out as best I can.”

Finding a friend

Despite her wiseacre tone, Fishkill is under plenty of stress right from the start of the novel. Told partly in the present and through flashbacks, the story is set in a small town in upstate New York where Fishkill has been “raised” in a tiny, ramshackle home by her violent, foul-mouthed grandfather, who has all the charm of a junkyard dog, and her damaged mother, Keely, an alcoholic who gave birth to her when she herself was a teen.

It’s eventually revealed that her “grandpop” is dead and that Keely has vanished, leaving Fishkill on her own.

She concentrates on protecting herself at school: “The only gift I found I had was the ability to knock a boy to the dirt in the time it took a teacher to look away.” But then she meets Duck-Duck (real name: Chrissy) Farina, a classmate whose beauty, insouciance and odd-ball brilliance makes Fishkill’s veneer of toughness fall away.

Duck-Duck convinces Fishkill to join her “gang” — its only member is Duck-Duck — and ropes her in for various stunts, like driving the family car down the street to mess with her mother’s mind about where she’s left the vehicle. “Duck-Duck had a little smirk,” Fishkill says, “that reminded me of a cat hiding under the table just waiting for some bare legs to pass by.”

Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, is a single lesbian with spiky hair, broad shoulders and a sometimes piercing look that makes Fishkill wonder if Molly likes her; she’s desperate to conceal from her the truth about her dismal home situation.

But when Molly discovers how Fishkill is living, she invites her to move in with her and Duck-Duck, and for awhile Fishkill believes she has found a real home. She’s amazed to see that, unlike anything that ever happened in her house, Duck-Duck and her mother still kiss one another and say goodnight even if they’ve argued.

But life, of course, is more complicated than that, and a series of plot twists will test Duck-Duck and Fishkill’s friendship as well as Fishkill’s fragile self-confidence; Fishkill will also come to question how strong her bond with Molly is. And when Keely comes back into the scene to try and reclaim her daughter, all bets are off, leaving Fishkill feeling once again like a perpetual outsider.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I think I am a zoo animal born into the wrong cage: a small monkey living with lions, a turtle contemplating the way of snakes.”

A voice for girls

“Being Fishkill” takes a tough view of social services and how easily children from dysfunctional homes can be failed by bureaucratic red tape, however well intentioned people in the field may be.

And Lehrer is very specific about wanting to be part of a growing corps of female authors whose stories are centered on young female characters, issues and perspectives.

“There are some great books being written by women writers, and I think we need more of them,” she said.

As just two examples, she points to Angie Thomas (“The Hate U Give”) and Rainbow Rowell (“Eleanor & Park”). Thomas’ novel, a New York Times bestseller, is about an African-American teenage girl who’s the sole witness to a police shooting of her best friend, who’s unarmed, while a central character of “Eleanor & Park” is a teenage girl from a poor, dysfunctional home who’s relentlessly bullied at school.

She sees her own book not so much as a conventional “coming of age” story — though it has some of that element — as one in which Fishkill also has to overcome the prejudice and pain she’s absorbed from growing up with her monstrous grandfather and feckless mother.

“Fishkill is looking for ways to be tough in the world,” said Lehrer. “She’s looking for ways to protect herself … but she also has to learn to open herself to change, to the possibility of being with different people and trusting them.”

Ruth Lehrer will be the featured reader at the Straw Dog Writers Guild monthly “Writers Night Out” on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at The Basement in Northampton. Visit: ruthlehrer.com to learn more about the author.