I knew I wanted to teach Angela Morales’ The Girls In My Town before I’d even finished the whole collection, before reaching the eponymous and concluding essay, but once I read the opening section of “The Girls In My Town” I knew I had to teach the book, or at least that essay.
Set in the Central Valley where I also teach and live, “The Girls In My Town” is a dark meditation on teen mothers (and the young men who abandon them), loneliness and lack, and the darker side of motherhood, including La Llorona and reflections on the pain of childbirth.
I enjoy teaching this essay from a craft perspective because it shows the power of well-chosen details to help create motif and support the ideas of a piece. As both an essayist and poet, I have a reverence for well-wrought scene. Morales’ essay is a fantastic way to demonstrate to students the power of description for advancing a theme, motif, or driving question. Morales opens her essay with a panoramic description:
Here in the Central Valley –in this sun-bleached, hardtack landscape– we have no choice but to search for beauty. The soil, dun-colored and rock hard, erodes into a soft layer of silt that covers the town every time the wind blows. All across California’s farm belt–this land between the Sierras and the Pacific–rows of cotton bolls, apricot and walnut trees, grapevines and tomato plants, roll out for hundreds of miles. But then the rain ceases. Two years pass. Three years. Early morning dew brings the smell of manure, which lingers in our neighborhoods, a smell that grows stronger with every passing month. Winter brings no rain but only a thick layer of tule fog, which traps us further in a damp, white haze. Bitter particles of pesticides hang in the air. We drive on Highway 99 in search of something to look at and find For Lease signs, abandoned Western-themed restaurants, and peeling billboards advertising brand new housing developments that never panned out–a picture of a two-story tract home with a Spanish-tile fountain, a father holding a plump toddler, a chemical green lawn, a happy yellow dog. Between aqueducts and waterways, mazes of irrigation canals and ditches, we try to improve our minds. We enroll in classes at the community college and vow, once and for all, to see it through.” (147-8)
Morales roots readers in the landscape and subtly prepares readers for what follows. “The Girls in My Town” is a great way of presenting the importance of well-chosen description details to students. In discussion of the essay and craft, we compare our own observations about the Central Valley with her writing in the essay, observing what word choices and details she has chosen to include or leave out, and what those choices suggest about the mood of the piece.
At once, Morales’ description both evokes and distorts the reality of the Central Valley. Morales supplies readers with texture, taste, smell, sound, and sights that are very much real, but arranged in such a way that we are later able to understand Morales’ disdain for the continuation school and other support systems that provide for material needs of young women’s bodies but not their souls or hearts. She writes, “The girls in my town may have more choices, though some people might argue that when you’re young and poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find. Love, on the other hand, is easier to find. Love (or the promise of it) is free.” (154)
“The Girls In My Town” craft discussion is a great opener for a description exercise. I ask my students to pick a mood, an emotion (or draw one from a hat) and I ask them write a description of a setting that hints at their chosen emotion through description, doing their best to include as many sensory details as possible. When writing time is over volunteers share their work. The result is a kaleidoscope view of the same setting.
The Central Valley in drought can be as harsh a place as Morales describes, but when the rains come in winter and spring the topsoil becomes a rich color like milk chocolate, the irrigation canals and ditches are full and the fast-moving water makes a shushing sound as it glides through neighborhoods on the way to those same rows of apricot and walnut trees in fields like a Hidden Valley advertisement; the rains rinse away the dust from the streets lined with stucco covered wood frame houses in shades of blue, yellow, peach, and green pasteled by long months of bright sun. My students know this, and say as much, too.
Contributing Editor Jennifer M. Dean earned an M.A. in poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno. Her work has most recently appeared in Crazyhorse, Midwestern Gothic, Poetry Quarterly, Off the Coast, and elsewhere. Jennifer adjuncts at Fresno City College and has three dogs whom she accidentally taught to spell ‘bath’ and ‘walk’. She is currently working on her first essay collection.