Haven Kimmel’s 2001 memoir A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana is a rollickingly funny entertainment about the childhood of a strange child in a strange family in the strangely tiny hamlet — 300 people — of Mooreland.
To say that Kimmel, the Zippy of the title, is a strange child seems legitimate since that’s how she portrays herself. Yet, truth be told, I suspect that each one of us was fairly strange as a child. At least, felt strange. Certainly, felt strange.
She also exaggerates the many oddities of her family which, for all that, was still a two-parent household with Zippy, born in 1965, and two other children, a decade or more older than her.
Her mother spends a lot of time on the couch, reading books of all sorts, particularly science fiction. She is, however, a regular attendee at the local Quaker meeting house, dragging Zippy, routinely protesting, along.
Her father, an atheist, works at a nearby Delco Remy plant but seems, also, to have a lot of time on his hands. He seems to gamble more than a bit, losing some (Kimmel provides a list of major losses) and winning some (a similar list). And people stay out of his way when he’s angry.
While such differences could lead to great tension in a family, the story Kimmel tells is one in which the parents love each other, even if, at times, they get on each other’s nerves. And children who love each other, even if, at times, they, particularly Kimmel, get on each other’s nerves.
“Our house rocked”
Kimmel’s mother may be stuck on her couch, but, as Kimmel tells the reader, she’s always willing to listen to her youngest, provide a shoulder to cry on, give advice and, like Zippy and the rest of the family, act silly. Such as going along with the gag that her youngest daughter came into the family through a trade with gypsies.
At one point, Kimmel — writing from the point of view of her younger self — lists her mother’s skills:
My mother was good at reading books (reading them out loud, too), making cinnamon biscuits, and coloring in a coloring book. Also she was a good eater of popcorn and knitter of sweaters with my initials right in them. She could sit really still. She knew how to believe in God and sing really loudly. When she sneezed our whole house rocked.
“Whistle like a bird”
Similarly, her father is endlessly willing to explain things to his daughter, enjoys having her join him with fix-up projects, takes her fishing often and acts silly, such as going along with that gypsy gag. Kimmel also lists his skills:
My father was a great smoker and driver of vehicles. Also he could whistle like a bird and could perform any task with either his left or right hand, a condition he taught me was called “ambisexual.”…He could hold a full coffee cup while driving and never spill a drop, even going over bumps. He lost his temper faster than anyone.
“The same Jesus”
Yes, Kimmel presents her family as a little off kilter, but that’s also what she does with the other families and individuals in Mooreland and in her wider acquaintance, such as her mother’s (truly adoptive) mother Mildred.
One Sunday afternoon, Mildred called the Jarvis home — Zippy’s last name — and her mother answered:
“I’ve got a question for you. Mabel Simpkins told me today that the Jesus who died at Easter was the same one who was born at Christmas? Is that true?”
At this point, I was already laughing out loud.
Before Mom could answer, Mildred continued, “I just laughed at Mabel and told her she sure wasn’t making a fool of me. I know Easter comes before Christmas.”
I’m really laughing now — although, in a way, it makes sense. The Jesus of Easter was a man, and it isn’t until later in the year that the Jesus of Christmas is born. It makes sense in a very dopey way.
“A passion for the location of balls”
Kimmel, who wrote A Girl Named Zippy in her 30s, is able to re-enter the head of herself from the ages of 6 through 9 and view the world with all the wonder, curiosity, discovery, uncertainty and silliness that is the treasure of childhood.
Generally, she keeps far away from the darker aspects of being a kid, but not always, such as when her friend Dana suddenly disappears from town with her mother, leaving her father and brothers behind or when one of her friends finds an art teacher too friendly.
Before Dana disappears, she plays Ping-Pong in the rec area in her family’s barn with Zippy who reports:
It didn’t go well. I was completely unskilled and Dana played so hard her shots often went right off the table, and so I spent a fair amount of time searching the corners of the barn.
There is a lot of klutziness to the young Zippy. Some of this is due to the oddly put-together physical package that is her body, but some is because of her approach to life. This is clear when it comes to games, as she explains:
I later discovered that in order to be a good athlete one must care intensely about what is happening with a ball, even if one doesn’t have possession of it. This was ultimately my failure: my inability to work up a passion for the location of balls.
“A kind of wildness”
A Girl Named Zippy is a funny book about growing up in small-town America in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a celebration of strangeness — of the strangeness of humanity, a strangeness that children are much better able to see than adults.
It is also, subtly, a meditation on religious faith.
Kimmel gets laughs about her father’s atheism and some of the members of her mother’s Quaker meeting. But the child Zippy is able to tap into deep moments of reverence and astonishment, as at the sunrise Easter service one year.
She describes the fifteen or so people who are there, everyone dressed, under heavy coats, in their best clothes, and writes:
There is a kind of wildness that grows up among people who have gathered in the dark, and we all felt a little giddy.
“Suddenly, wide awake”
The pastor gave a sermon about the resurrection of Jesus and the time he spent on the cross, and the vigil his mother stood, and how at the moment he died the world went silent.
I felt, suddenly, wide awake. The sun was just coming up over the horizon, and I looked at the faces of the Friends gathered around me. Some had closed their eyes; some, like my mother, were looking at the sky. At the fence bordering our meadow and a neighboring farmer’s field, a small group of horses gathered, and were standing perfectly still and watching us. Their breath steamed out in the cold. Down the street the bells of the North Christian Church began to ring, and it was morning….
I looked up at my mother as her voice rang out above all the others. She had made an Easter dress for me, but not one for herself….She looked down and saw me staring at her, and took her gloveless hand out of her pocket and rested it on my head. I leaned up against her and put my hand in her warm pocket, where she always kept some Kleenex and those Vick’s cough drops that taste brown.
A Girl Named Zippy is pretty silly. Surreptitiously, it’s a lot more.
Patrick T. Reardon
NOTE: This is the second time I’ve read A Girl Named Zippy. The first was a decade ago, and you can read my review from that reading here.