Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, set in the Permian Basin town of Odessa and the oil fields that spring from it and surround it is a modern story whose themes are those recurring modern themes: male dominance and white supremacy. But this story is told by women; women who deal with a hardscrabble existence and men who are, for the most part absent. The men have not deserted them, they are working on the oil rigs and the horizontal drill sites because these jobs pay well and give hope, mostly unfounded, that the family will stockpile enough money to buy their way to a better life. It may work out for some people but tragedy stalks oil work and the climate is killer, made worse by blowing dust and methane flares. The billions of stars visible in the night skies, away from the flares, may be the only compensation Wetmore’s. characters tell us.
“We lose the men when they try to beat the trains and their pickup trucks stall on the tracks, or they get drunk and accidentally shoot themselves, or they get drunk and climb the water tower and fall ten stories to their deaths. During cutting season, when they stumble in the chute and a bull calf roars and kicks them in the heart. On fishing trips when they drown in the lake or fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Pile-up on the interstate, shooting at the Dixie Motel, hydrogen sulfide leak outside Gardendale.”
Gloria is 14. She is looking for excitement so she does something that she knows her mother (who she loves) will disapprove of. She allows herself to be enticed into the passenger seat of a pickup truck by an older, but handsome-in-a-beat-up-sort-of-way, man. She wakes up on the ground next to the truck somewhere out in the oil fields, raped and beaten, and lucky to be alive. That man, Dale Strickland is still asleep in the truck as she carefully sets out to find someone who can help her. It is clear that this man could kill her if he awakens and finds her. She has no shoes, we’re not even sure if she is wearing clothing. She cuts her feet on the hard caliche rock and she stops herself from falling and staying there to die by holding on to barbed wire.
When she appears on Mary Rose’s front porch, the only home in this barren land, Mary Rose is at first reluctant to answer the door. She has a young daughter and she is seven months pregnant. Of course even when she does open the door she almost wishes she didn’t. Close behind Gloria who is wounded and traumatized, the pickup truck carrying Dale Strickland turns onto her property. Mary Rose has a gun but is not sure if it is loaded. Dale Strickland knows he is in trouble and he knows how to intimidate. Robert, Mary Rose’s husband is out with his cattle, nowhere nearby. If the ambulance and the police had not arrived (called by the daughter) who can tell what horrors might have happened at that isolated house full of females.
Mary Rose’s husband always wanted her to move in to town to wait for the birth of the baby. She did not want to give up their ranch. Now it is Mary Rose who insists on a place in town and Robert who doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that she is having nightmares, that she is afraid that Strickland will come back to hurt or kill her daughter and her. She is planning to testify, to stand up for Gloria in court. There is pushback. Gloria’s last name is Ramirez. Dale Strickland grew up in small town America. He is white, a high school football player. His community writes lots of letters on his behalf and offers character references which show that they are out of touch with this incarnation of Dale Strickland, a mean meth head. Who is likely to win in court?
Mary Rose waits for her court appearance in town, on Larkspur Lane, where she eventually meets her neighbors. These women are such well-drawn characters that we feel like we live with them on Larkspur Lane – Suzanne Ledbetter, Corrine Shepard, and Debra Ann, the young girl that Ginny left behind when she lit out for places unknown. It is a world of casseroles and cigarettes, drinks and target practice, women who can’t decide if it is worthwhile to go on or just give up. Debra Ann is an abandoned child and also possibly headed for trouble.
Gloria changes her name to Glory because she can no longer stand the sound of Gloria. She slowly recovers but she has to do this without her mother, Alma, who is taken away by immigration. Her Uncle Victor takes her to a motel where they can disappear. A kind woman Glory meets in the pool at the motel finally gives her the empathy she requires. Mary Rose is getting threatening phone calls day and night to try to scare her into reconsidering her decision to testify. Elizabeth Wetmore evokes the despair of life in the Permian Basin in western Texas, she creates these women who struggle to live in what basically seems like hell on earth. There are glimmers of hope. I guess you can tell that I really loved this book. She calls this book Valentine.