Sarah Henstra’s new book is a campus novel like no other. Canadian Karen Huls begins her sophomore year at a prominent college in the States, where she is thrown headlong into the opposing forces of Greek life — living with a house of radical feminists, but finding herself inextricably drawn to the debaucherous party culture of one of the school's top fraternities. Gamma Beta Chi, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central”, is a prominent contributor to a list of sexual abusers and misogynists compiled by female students, and seems unstoppable.
Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who prompt her to join them in a Women’s Studies class led by a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture — but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.
Read an excerpt from The Red Word below!
Sing, O Goddess, of the fury of Dyann Brooks-Morriss, teller of unbearable truths. O sing of the rage that kindled one young woman’s heart and the next until it drove us together from our homes, battlethirsty, into the secret places of the enemy. Sing how the young men scattered and fled as before the thunderbolt that lashes the sky. The storm is not appeased until the green leaves are torn from the trees, until even the great pines are uprooted from the mountainsides and lie down for the shipwright’s axe. It does not stop until bodies are rent and scattered as easymeat for curs and crows.
I receive two bits of news less than thirty minutes apart:
It is eleven-thirty in the morning, September 20, 2010. Here on the eighteenth story the sun trampolines off Lake Ontario and strikes both the floor and ceiling. I’ve just made my breakfast, squinting against the glare on the kettle, and I am back at my desk in the bedroom with the blackout drapes pulled tight. I am pretending to work, but the image I’ve got open in Photoshop on my monitor screens is not for work. It’s an arrangement of hydrangea and coneflower in a tarnished silver vase. They are two images, in fact, shot at two slightly different exposures. I am toggling back and forth, fiddling with saturation levels, when the first news arrives. It’s an email message from Annabeth Lise with the subject line Karen I am so so sorry. Her nanny’s mother has died in the Philippines.
I scroll through three quarters of Annabeth’s frantic, rambling message before I grasp her point. Her point is the International Conference on Lifestyle Photography, three days away: She is so, so sorry but there is just no way she can swing it; I will have to give our “Domestic Dreams” presentation on my own; she could send me what she’s written so far but it’s so rough at this stage; I’m so good on my feet that she knows it’ll go great; the photos are the best part of these things anyway, right? Annabeth really is so sorry.
She owes me big-time, she says.
I delete the message and stumble out of the bedroom. Sun-blinded, heart racing, I pace a few lengths of the kitchen and living/dining room. I have never been to a conference before. I’m fairly sure I made that clear to Annabeth when she asked me to go with her. I am no writer, certainly not a public speaker. All I was supposed to do was cue the slideshow.
If all this blood is your blood you’ll be dead soon. If not not. This is what runs through my mind when Jen Swinburn calls me — twenty-four minutes later — to give me the second piece of news: that Stephanie McNamara has passed away. As I sit there on the phone at my desk in my office in my apartment in Toronto, with my feet in slippers and with the taste of cheddar-on-toast on my tongue, I do not think of poor Steph at all but of myself. If all this blood — it’s a memory.
I look up and, on the heels of the memory, I spot the detail I’ve been searching for in the twin images on my screens. An overripe melon lies next to the tarnished vase, its seeds sliding onto the tabletop. The tabletop itself is scarred like a butcher’s block, and there is a divot at the spot where the seeds are oozing against the wood. The light meets the slime and slows down, bends, pools. A tiny wrinkle in the visual plane.
On the phone Jen says she had access to my phone number because she’s on the Alumni Relations Board. We small-talk a bit: I say I enjoyed that piece she wrote a few years ago for the alumni magazine about journalism after 9/11. She says she saw my byline in Covet My Home while on a cruise with her in-laws and couldn’t help googling, and “who would have thought a militant anarcha-feminist like yourself would end up employed in the Martha Stewart sector, ha ha.”
And then she tells me about Steph. She received the notice at the alumni office. “I remembered you two were close, but I didn’t know if you’d still be in touch,” she says. “It’s just not the kind of thing you’d want to read in the back of an alumni bulletin.”
“Are you calling anyone else?” I ask. It isn’t quite the right question. It sounds like I think Jen has been nosy or presumptuous. I try to fix it: “I mean, in case you need updated contact info for anyone.” Not that I would have updated contact information for anyone. I was one of the first to leave — back home to Canada even before my student visa expired — and fifteen years later everyone else is more or less scattered across the United States.
“Just a small list,” she says. “It’s not normally our role.”
“Thank you for calling, Jen. I appreciate it.”
A quick search reveals there is to be a campus memorial service for Dr. Stephanie McNamara this coming Friday. It’s the day after the panel presentation, in the very same US city as the photography conference. I know that Steph teaches — that Steph taught — in the Women’s Studies Department in that city, but I haven’t thought of her through my travel preparations. I haven’t thought of Stephanie McNamara, period, in years. The coincidence seems important in a spooky, literary way, like tragic destiny. Her college isn’t far at all from the Ivy League school where, in 1995–96, my sophomore year, Steph and I and three other girls were housemates.
If all this blood is your blood you’ll be dead soon. If not not. Everyone knows the trouble with myth. The trouble with myth is the way it shirks blame. It makes violent death as unavoidable as weather. All that tragic destiny lets everyone off the hook. Some bored god comes kicking up gravel and, just like that, a noble house explodes into carnage.
But then, I photograph interiors for a living. Myth is what I do. I mythologize.
O soulwithered Stephanie, keeper of all our sorrows. You tried again to open your eyes to the dark and this time it must have worked.
I squinted up at a shadow blocking out the sun. A man was standing over me. He wore faded jeans and a huge oval belt buckle etched with a triple X. I lifted my elbow to my brow and the man became a woman, a girl my age. If I’d learned anything last year at college, I’d learned that just because someone was wearing a military crew cut and a white T-shirt tight across her flat chest and had a pack of cigarettes folded into the sleeve of the T-shirt like James Dean, it didn’t mean you went and assumed she was male. Some of my education seemed to have worn off over the summer.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked.
I turned my cheek to the grass in an effort to mute the stereophonic whine of cicadas and grasshoppers. I was lying in somebody’s backyard. Gray fencing teetered overhead, but the only shade on me fell from the massive, hairy leaves of some kind of vine I was curled beside. Slug trails dazzled the undersides. “What is this plant?” I asked.
“Um, pumpkin,” the girl said. “Last year, after Samhain, we couldn’t fit all our jack-o’-lanterns into the composter, so we dug a big hole back here and buried them.”
“Samhain?” My voice cactused my throat.
“Halloween. Look, are you okay? What happened to you?” she asked.
“I had sex with somebody,” I said. The uprush of memory, and the shock that I’d spoken it aloud, made me retch a little. I rolled over and sat up in the grass.
“You had sex with somebody,” she echoed. “On purpose?”
I waggled my head side to side, testing my headache. The yard kept swinging when I stopped moving. “There was a frat party,” I explained.
It came back to me now with another lurch why I’d walked all the way from the fraternity house to this particular spot, early this morning before I’d passed out. “Oh,” I said. “Oh, damn. Is this 61 Fulton Ave?”
“Yes. Well, at the moment we’re standing in 63,” she said. “Our backyards are connected.”
I looked around. There was a line where the neat lawn became a jungle, and this was the jungle side. “I came about your ad for a roommate,” I said.
The girl crouched beside me, barefoot in the grass. She held a mug of coffee and a lit cigarette. She offered them both, reaching out one hand at a time and pulling it back to indicate she’d make either substance disappear if it proved offensive to my hangover.
“Thanks.” I took a sip of the coffee, heavily sugared, and then a drag from her cigarette. I brushed at the ants crawling over my bare legs.
The girl was a few years older than me, I guessed, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. “You’re a little early for the room thing,” she said. “Some of us have class this morning. Didn’t whoever you spoke to tell you that on the phone?”
I held out my hands to show the girl my dirt-ringed fingernails. “Well, I wanted to make a good first impression, you know?” I laughed, but misery poked its black fingers all through the laughter. I was making it worse. I was making her feel sorry for me. “Look, let’s just pretend I was never here.” I heaved myself to my feet — if I didn’t notice then maybe she wouldn’t either, how my knees and shins were smeared with green, how I must have been crawling on all fours that morning by the time I reached the back fence.
This would have been a good place to live, too. The roommate-wanted ad had stood out from the others at the Student Housing Office, where I’d been browsing yesterday for an alternative to my on-campus housing placement. The ad was much wordier, for one thing. Committed feminists only, it read. Vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic meal-sharing, and Queer-friendliness a must. That last phrase had stuck in my head because I wasn’t sure exactly what it was supposed to mean. “Queer” was a slur against gays, I’d always thought. An insult, not something friendly. It was something the rednecks in northern Ontario were fond of shouting at tree planters on our days off, when we dressed up in thrift-store tuxes and dresses to go dancing at the Valhalla Hotel bar. Buncha queers.
The contact name on the ad had stood out for me too: Dyann Brooks-Morriss. Dyann had been one of the only sophomores in my freshman Great Writers class last year. I was impressed by her vocabulary and the boldness with which she would interrupt the professor with questions about things like “patriarchal assumptions” and “ideological blind spots.” I came home once after hearing Dyann speak up in class and looked up “hegemony” in my dictionary. Dyann sat in the front, and I was in the back, so I’d never really had a look at her up close.
I wobbled across the lawn behind the girl. “Hey. Give my apologies to your next-door neighbors too, okay?” I said.
Her smoke huffed out in a laugh. “If they noticed, which I’m sure they did not, I don’t think they’d mind. Look, why don’t you come in for a coffee.”
“Please, come on in for a minute. I’m Steph, by the way.” She steered me to the deck on the tidier side of the yard, where the patio doors stood open. “This is Marie-Jeanne” — she pointed at a blond girl peeling an egg at the table, and the girl gave me a quizzical wave — “and over there is Dyann.”
The living room was shadowy after the bright backyard. Dyann was a silhouette on the couch. “I’m Karen,” I said. “Would you mind if I just used your washroom a sec?”
Steph pulled the string on a bulb over the basement stairs. “It’s down to the left,” she said. “Charla’s room and mine are down there. The other three bedrooms are up on the second floor.”
I had been looking forward to meeting Dyann Brooks-Morriss face-to-face. And I’d been planning to dress a bit like this girl Steph — in jeans and maybe my army-surplus boots. I’d definitely have worn my plaid shirt, the men’s worsted-wool Pendleton I’d found at a logging camp during the spring planting contract, the shirt I’d fallen in love with because it reminded me of the one Sal goes back for, in Kerouac’s On the Road. I had a feeling Dyann would approve of that shirt. I’d planned to impress her with exaggerated tales of environmental destruction and workplace discrimination in the Canadian tree-planting industry.
Instead I was wearing a pair of men’s boxer shorts, one turquoise jelly sandal, a pink T-shirt with a sparkly palm tree on the front, and no bra. My hair in the bathroom mirror was dew-frizzed and studded with bits of dead grass. An inchworm made its way across my breast, down a frond of the sparkly palm tree. I stank of booze and, probably, sex.
When I came back upstairs Steph said, “Do you take milk and sugar?”
“I should go,” I said. “You’ve been really nice.”
“We figured we may as well not make you come back again this afternoon,” she said. “Why don’t we all just talk for a minute now instead.” She hovered the milk carton over the mug until I nodded, then she poured and stirred. Steph’s face was kind: a full-lipped smile, freckles, light brown eyes with dark lashes. It wasn’t a soldier’s haircut after all — more like a little boy’s, with soft brown bangs cut straight across but ruffled out of place.