Prior to Local Girls, Alice Hoffman had written thirteen novels and collections of short stories, most concerning intense, realistic relationships between family members, friends, and/or lovers. Unlike other writers such as Anne Tyler and Gail Godwin who mine these same themes, Hoffman creates texts riddled with freakish physical and/or natural phenomena which serve as tropes for her metaphysics. Sometimes these events have comic purposes, but typically they convey literal as well as symbolic meanings. In Here on Earth (1997), for example, the main character falls in love with an orphan brought home by her father. When the two kiss or get close to each other, each feels not only an emotional heat but also an intense physical heat which eventually breaks into real flames that threaten to consume them. Later the reader learns that the man is abusive and the fire is symbolic of his abuse. In Seventh Heaven (1990), a man sees a literal wolf skulking through his neighbor’s house, though the reader soon learns the wolf may be the woman’s much younger lover perceived as an emotional wolf by everyone but her. At their best, these moments of magic serve as shortcuts to understanding emotional situations and add an imaginative dimension to Hoffman’s work which transcends a more cynical realism.
Local Girls, a collection of fifteen interrelated short stories chronicling the coming-of-age of wisecracking but naïve Gretel Samuelson, continues Hoffman’s penchant for Magical Realism. In the first story of the collection, “Dear Diary,” Gretel opens by saying:
One thing I’ve learned is that strange things do happen. They happen all the time. Today, for instance, my best friend Jill’s cat spoke. . . . We experienced a miracle and now we’re looking for more, although Franconia, the town we live in, is not known for such things.
Hoffman’s text lives up to this opening premise. Jill’s cat speaks, and other more serious miracles occur as well. In a bizarre trade-off, Gretel’s grandmother requests that her life be taken so that her daughter Frances may live. Almost immediately, Frances’s cancer goes into remission and Gretel’s grandmother dies. Later, in “How to Talk to the Dead,” Gretel watches the “ghost” of her grandmother magically change the low-calorie meals at Gretel’s father and new stepmother’s house to high- calorie, butter-enriched food as a way to pay back the father for leaving the family. In “The Boy Who Wrestled with Angels,” Gretel’s brother confronts “angelic” fire during the several occasions when he almost dies. In one occurrence his shirt is literally burned off his body. In the most dramatic example of this phenomena, “Examining the Evidence,” her Aunt Margot is visited by a series of signs including a large bolt of electrical energy, a profusion of spiders, and an isolated hailstorm that destroys her roof. If that were not enough, in “Still Among the Living,” Margot trades her two-carat diamond ring to a faith healer who tells her to eat an avocado with herbs and make love once under the moon and once in the shadows in order to get pregnant. Although Margot has been declared infertile, this method works and she bears a child.
While Hoffman enjoys using magical moments as a way to emphasize emotional and intellectual extremes, the search for a miracle does not extend to making life easier for Gretel or any character in this collection. Gretel’s grandmother, mother, and brother all die during the course of the book, and she is estranged from her father when he remarries and from her best friend Jill when she marries. Despite these hardships, Gretel continues to believe in miracles because of well-placed “signs,” another element of Hoffman’s magic, which provide moments of hope for her characters. At the beginning of the first story, Gretel and her mother look for stars, one such sign, and at the end of the last story, “Local Girls,” Gretel and her childhood friend Jill spy a firefly which, as they watch, “rises so high it’s impossible to tell where it is among the stars.” Gretel considers the firefly a star on earth whose life will be short unless he decides to go back to the heavens. Later, when Gretel indicates that the firefly must have decided to live because it flew away, the third-person narrator suggests, “Some things, after all, are as simple as that.” This closing scene intimates that surviving has been Gretel and Jill’s miracle, though they have used stars consistently to help in that quest.
Water also serves to rejuvenate the characters—Gretel, particularly. The first story, “Dear Diary,” ends with one of Hoffman’s more lyrical passages about Gretel’s belief in water as...
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