Darcey Steinke has published five novels and a memoir in the last 25 years (her first book came out in 1989 when she was 27). For all her apparent productivity, Steinke has been relatively quiet in recent years: It has been nearly a decade since her last novel, “Milk,” and seven years since the memoir “Easter Everywhere.” But those who have stuck with her will be heartened to know that her new novel, “Sister Golden Hair,” may perhaps earn laurels more substantial and nutritious: shades of “labor of love,” a definite “worth the wait.”
“Sister Golden Hair,” with its story of a former minister’s daughter finding herself in the suburban South of 40 years ago, feels like an American coming-of-age classic, a ‘70s period piece that should have already been written but actually hasn’t — not with a sensitivity, candor and energy that is all Steinke.
The world of “Sister Golden Hair” is one Steinke clearly knows well. The father of the novel’s adolescent heroine, Jesse, is a pastor; Steinke’s was a minister. The book is set in Roanoke, Va., one of the places Steinke described growing up in in “Easter Everywhere.” The ‘70s is also the right decade for Steinke’s own coming of age. She seems flawlessly fluent in the references of this era — Skynrd on the radio, Elton John and David Bowie lyrics on everyone’s tongues, tight corduroys and wide combs in back pockets.
The book is divided into six chapters, titled after main characters, that also serve as mini-novellas, only occasionally intertwining to bridge the novel. It does carry us from Jesse’s preteenage years to her mid-teens, but its cuts and jumps are less jarring than simply realistic — best friends come and go, idols burn bright and out, feelings heat up and cool off in a genuine rendering of adolescent tempestuousness.
It is also the story of Jesse’s family adjusting to a new town: They arrive to Roanoke because her father has given up on conventional spiritual life and is finding himself while barely keeping the family afloat. His wife dreams of wealth and status, and Jesse’s little brother is too young to understand her, so Jesse is mostly alone. She becomes obsessed with the residents of her housing development, and through them she encounters all sorts of female role models, young and old, strong and broken, true and false.
Jesse feels uncomfortable with the first hints of her own femininity and prefers quoting from her favorite book, “The Big Book of Burial Rites,” than playing Playboy Bunny dress-up with a popular girl. Her closest female friendship — and first extra-familial love — is forged with Jill, a free-spirited fellow “freak” whose mother goes missing, leaving her to live on scraps from Jesse’s pantry until they get caught. Jill comes in and out of the narrative, but her impression haunts Jesse throughout the narrative in many ways. Steinke is in a league of her own in bringing to life the deep and tangled stakes of true female friendship.
Occasionally the prose could be more sophisticated. Steinke writes at one point: “I had trouble sleeping. To try to calm myself I thought about our life before we left the church.” The long paragraph that follows is a painfully obvious device for exposition. But at other points she masterfully offers a sense of the swiftly changing world: “Nixon had resigned and I’d gotten my period, but not much else had changed besidesmy bra size. The world went on, Patty Hearst got kidnapped, Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon and the Weathermen bombed the State Department.”
“Sister Golden Hair” gets its title from the classic America song of 1975, a wanderer’s anthem that touches on longing, loss and cold feet about marriage. It’s an appropriate title for the book, as none of the seemingly deep bonds of “Sister Golden Hair” last. Every friendship gets to fever pitch — you can argue every one of its stories is a love story — and in the end fades.
Steinke beautifully transfers the more conventionally chronicled energies of romantic lust infatuation to the less intensely explored platonic partnerships of best friends and first confidants. This may be the most in-depth fictional dive into what millennials call a “girl crush,” but for Steinke, the girl crush is not cute and cupcakey and frothy; it is serious, intense, dangerous and all-consuming. “I wanted to ingest her like one of my father’s communion wafers and let her instruct me, like Jesus, from the inside,” Jesse says as she watches a classmate by her locker.
This girl-to-girl affection is an essential ingredient in coming-of-womanhood so often left out of fictional tales in favor of male objects of affection. Steinke’s men are at best just worried fathers, inappropriate stepfathers, local perverts, inconsequential playground bullies, a nagging brother. Their influence on the women of her world rarely transcends distraction and inconvenience. Steinke’s women are shaped by other women and emerge only better for that.
For all its pop-cultural references and ambitious time span, “Sister Golden Hair” is an almost defiantly quiet book, a deliberately small book — at a time when few seasoned authors dare such a thing. It is hard to find this sort of ease in her contemporaries; fellow highly decorated female authors such as Jennifer Egan, Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner, who share with her a generation as well as a fascination with realist depictions of American decades past, are often rather misogynistically applauded for an ambition that feels masculine to some critics.
Steinke doesn’t seem concerned with those anxieties here. This is a book at peace with its intimacy. There is little outlandish showmanship, not many surprises even. But what it does offer is honesty and authenticity and that literary cliché made real and challenging: an author existing solely in service of the story, spinning a remarkably faithful universe out of the almost too-recent past.
Like Jesse’s life in the ‘70s, Steinke’s “Sister Golden Hair” is not out of this world at all — it’s very much the warmest shade of this world with its characters lovingly rendered and their missteps left gently unjudged, a realm where you don’t need to buckle your seat belts, where hitchhiking is still safe.
Khakpour is the author, most recently, of “The Last Illusion.”
Sister Golden Hair
Tin House: 336 pp., $15.95 paper