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Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy is a memoir of childhood in Mooreland, Indiana, whose population stayed steady at 300 throughout the decades. Nicknamed after a chimpanzee who zipped around on rollerskates, Kimmel narrates the tale of her life in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the prevailing trends of American life bypassed tiny Mooreland.

The book is therefore not a snapshot of the United States at that time, but a snapshot of a certain kind of small-town life, a certain kind of Quaker upbringing, a certain kind of girl. And yet, there’s enough of the universal in Zippy to appeal and entertain, with her perceptive outsider’s take on the world, her love for and frustration with her family, and her small adventures with friends, neighbours, and most of all, dead animals.

Kimmel herself reads this audiobook, in a sharp, clear voice that takes on a childlike cadence when she’s speaking as Zippy the quoted character rather than Zippy the narrator. It’s hard to imagine another reader doing justice to the distinctive voice of Zippy, with her traces of a child’s rural syntax and colloquialisms, and peculiar intonations to get just the right tone of indignation or exasperation with the adults around her.

At the beginning, Kimmel says her sister believed “the book on Mooreland has yet to be written, because no one sane would be interested in reading it.”

“‘No, no, wait,’ she said. ‘I know who might read such a book. A person lying in a hospital bed with no television and no roommate. Just lying there. Maybe waiting for a physical therapist. And then here comes a candystriper with a squeaky library cart, and on that cart there is only one book. Or, or maybe two books – yours, and Cooking with Pork. I can see how a person would be grateful for Mooreland then.’”

That passage is a good demonstration of Kimmel’s folksy, funny writing style, and keen observation of detail, using hyperbole and mock exactitude for comic effect. She also demonstrates an admirable lack of ego, creating a memory of herself as Zippy as a likeable, engaging kid, but also a bossy, sly, often inconsiderate, and amusingly unhygienic kid. She describes herself as peculiar-looking, and the cover of the audiobook box backs her up, since her baby photo, while adorable, is not making the Gerber baby quake in his booties.

Though not packaged this way, A Girl Named Zippy is really a collection of essays rather than a single narrative. The book as a whole is not chronological, as Zippy bounces around in age, characters are introduced and reintroduced, and some events and ideas are referred to more than once in different essays, in different ways. It’s actually a perfect format for an audiobook, since the vignettes feel like nostalgic stories told to a friend, and we literally have Zippy herself telling us story after story of her unextraordinary life in her extraordinary way (though I presume she’s grown out of the nickname now).

Kimmel maintains a child-like perspective, with an adult voice peeking out to provide context and depth. There’s a disconnect between her childhood memories of a loving family and picturesque upbringing, and the shadows of knowledge that there was a darker reality around her. She never dwells in this darkness – A Girl Named Zippy is a light, bright listen – but we get hints of poverty exacerbated by her father’s gambling, and of her mother’s apparent depression and benign neglect. (Zippy describes her mother’s occupation as “not moving from the couch,” and her continuation of this memoir is the more recently published She Got Up Off the Couch). These essays are, however, tender reminiscences rather than recriminations.

Most of the essays are more anecdotal, less analytic, painting an entertaining and vivid picture of Zippy’s world. But one in particular, The Social Gospel, more blatantly uses the juxtaposition of the child with the adult perspective, and the nosy gossip Zippy with the kindhearted Zippy, to make a point. She tries to ingratiate herself with a pious classmate whose family life fascinates her by claiming she wants to be a better Christian, and fails miserably according to the standards set up for her. At the same time, she learns that her friend Rose is uncomfortable staying after class for private lessons with the music teacher, and though she does not quite understand Rose’s discomfort – though our adult perspective comes immediately to the conclusion that he is abusing her – Zippy insists on staying with her after class from then on. Zippy struggles throughout the book with religion, calling herself an atheist but describing herself as mad at God, and with a strange fascination with Jesus, and in this one essay, demonstrating that good acts are not always recognized as such.

The childish perspective and memories are played far more for humour, though, and this is an audiobook that will have you laughing rather than thinking for the most part, with passages like: “As far as I knew, shrines wore absurd hats and drove miniature cars in circles during the Mooreland Fair parade. And were praised, inexplicably, for burning children. Although, actually, if I was perfectly honest, I could think of a couple kids who could use a good frying.”

A Girl Named Zippy is lighthearted fun with unexpected moments of depth and insight, and Kimmel’s vivid recollections of Zippy’s cast of characters are likely to stay with you as happy reminiscences of your own.

The audiobook version comes unabridged on five CDs, and is available from the HighBridge Audio website, where you can also hear a clip as read by author Haven Kimmel.

Categories: books, review