As a rule, childhood is one of the most taboo topics of conversation. Its showcase of immature dreams, accidents and memories are too easily remembered with a blush of humiliation. But “Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress,” by Susan Jane Gilman, handles childhood and adolescence with verve and vivacity as she traces her life from childhood to maturity through short stories highlighting the most humorous and most painful experiences of her life.
Gilman, a graduate of the University’s creative writing program, said her book is “meant to entertain people, to make them feel less alone.” The collection encompasses battles with neighborhood toughs, her rebelliously psychedelic adolescence and the painful experience of her parents’ divorce. The chronological thread of the stories allows the reader to view Gilman’s character from all angles as she tumbles through growth and experience. The stories were compiled as “a sculptor would look at different objects and try to make something out of them,” Gilman remarked. “I didn’t write (the book) because I think I am so fascinating and everyone has to read about my life … I just stepped back and they seemed like funny stories.”
The book’s easy coupling of humor and emotion is one of its strongest points. The author’s remarkably human voice creates intimacy and a sense of confidence between character and reader. Little Susie’s childhood scrapes and teenage embarrassments become secrets told between friends. Gilman’s personal tone puts the book almost on the level of a diary or a journal. Fortunately, she doesn’t shy away from emotional insight or candor when it comes to sensitive issues such as injustice and sex. “Not everyone has had my experiences, but … everyone’s been humiliated, everyone’s been overconfident at times, everybody if they’re lucky has been through all of that and all the drama,” she said. “I wanted it to be funny … while tapping into a vein.”
Gilman has found her niche with the familiar, warm language that both endears her life to the reader and allows her to write from the standpoint of an active participant. Her words, like lines on a map, are significant in and of themselves while leading to a greater destination. Description and development abound, each character and story is cohesive and full, exposing a treasure trove of experiences. It is clear that these memories, while painful at times, are cherished and loved.
With a light touch and a keen eye for humor, Gilman adeptly shows the rites of passage that everyone must undergo. Her book is well written, honestly up front and sometimes startling funny while it chronicles the process of maturity. It is growing up at its most painfully poignant. “This book I really wrote … out of a sense that the world is a very scary and difficult place, particularly now, and I sort of wanted to make people laugh and give them comfort and feel like they had another friend in their life.”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars