Memoirs Review: A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch

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A GIRL NAMED ZIPPY

Haven Kimmel is one of my favorite authors. I had put off re-reading her books and reviewing them because I was waiting on the most recent, much-awaited novel, The Farm. However, it has been several years and that book is now available in England, I think, but I still can’t get my hands on it. So, I got Covid just when I had begun with The Solace of Leaving Early, her first novel. In bed for a week (but after I came out of the worst of my fever), I backtracked to this one, trying to intersperse her headier, more dysthymic novels with her humorous memoirs.

A Girl Named Zippy is Haven Kimmel’s most popular book, the first one published to a wide audience. For years in the early twenty-first-century, you could say, “You know, the author of A Girl Named Zippy” and people would nod vaguely at the very least. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Most people have forgotten Zippy, which is partly Haven’s deal as she left the public eye entirely on purpose after her second memoir and fourth novel (and two kids’ books). But let me remind you that A Girl Named Zippy graced our shelves and cultural hive-mind for a while around 2001 and many people enjoyed the book, though it is sort of unconventional (having no depressing, abusive or deprived childhood to expose and no history as a stand-up comedian (or other fame) to launch from). Kimmel was just a new and promising author, whip-smart and well-educated, who wrote about her small-town upbringing in Indiana.

A Girl Named Zippy is the story of Haven Kimmel’s childhood in Mooreland, Indiana, a town that was stuck at population 300 for generations. Kimmel (not her given name) bounces around in the telling, landing us in chapters that are topical and vignette-y, bouncing us around also in time so that there aren’t any plot twists or surprises here, except in the unravelling of each story. Zippy (nickname given to her before her second birthday) is full of surprises, as are the cast of family and neighbor characters around her. But mostly Zippy. Kimmel manages to write from the perspective of a child most admirably. She also manages to write from the perspective of a quirky, out-spoken child most admirably. Zippy is a real hoot and the way her family and town handles her is endearing and funny as heck. Kimmel’s writing about her childhood is wry, humorous, and somehow manages to keep Zippy innocent while we, the grown-ups reading this in the future in bigger towns, understand the context, the occasional faults in her logic, what’s going on behind the curtain while she tromps through the Oz of childhood, not yet ready for what we know and suspect about her reality.

The way she says things! What we find out with careful reading and while snorting along with this Ramona-on-steroids! It’s charming while also being a pure slice of Americana (I will repeat this word later). Zippy ushers us into history and a place many of us have yet to understand or appreciate, yet she is as distinct a character as any I’ve read. Zippy doesn’t shy away from religion and little Zippy is quite hard on it, but note that this would not always be the case for Kimmel, who is, I believe, still a practicing Quaker. The point is that as a child she was candid, stubborn, and lived one-hundred-per-cent in the moment.

Warning: several non-PC moments. Some of this derives from Kimmel being accurate to her childhood in the 70s, back when terms like “retarded” were de rigueur and not used in any sort of accurate or sensitive way. A few instances of political incorrectness might arise from the two decades it has been since this book was published, but I think most of it is from Kimmel being authentic and historical. She tells all her stories in Zippy from sort of a side angle, and this includes even a brief moment where she lets us know just what small-town Indiana in the 70s would have thought of a Black person wandering into town. While the story is full of levity, we do see through the child into a grown-up’s worldview without ever leaving Zippy, and this includes an understanding of some of the more backwards (and sinister) things that go on under Zippy’s radar. Yet, in the end, I think we also appreciate these people because they are really well-formed people who the author clearly loves and handles with care.

Another warning: apparently some people give this book one star because of the animal cruelty. Um. I find myself amazed that our culture is obsessed with true crime and slasher films and yet can’t stomach anecdotes (used to a literary purpose) about bad neighbors doing bad things to animals in a time and place when animal welfare almost wasn’t a concept. This is… Well, I didn’t foresee myself addressing this at all, but here it is. If you are gonna’ freak out about animal abuse in a true story dealt with as a matter of normal life and death, then walk on by, I guess. It seems a real minor issue, to me, and not because I don’t love animals but more because of its honesty.

If you like memoirs or even just comedy, this is one you should find in a used bookstore. You will probably laugh. I even cried a tear or two.

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SHE GOT UP OFF THE COUCH

Now I said I was going back and forth between Kimmel’s heavier novels and lighter memoirs, but after I read A Girl Named Zippy, I wanted to move right on to She Got Up Off the Couch. So I did. Unfortunately, I was in a fever fog for some of it, and in between reading I was having these fever dreams which roped in whatever show I was watching or book I was reading when awake (which wasn’t all that much, actually, mostly home reno and baking competitions and, inexplicably, Footloose). Doing it this way accentuated what I will now warn you about: whole paragraphs and stories are pulled from Zippy here or there (especially at the beginning) to make sense of Kimmel’s life in case you hadn’t read the first book or at least hadn’t in a while. This is standard writing stuff. I never love it. Here, it isn’t even re-worded. I just breezed through it.

By She Got Up Off the Couch, Kimmel has the humor side of her memoir writing well in grasp, and I laughed so hard a few times, I had tears in my eyes. (Something perverse just overcame me with Zippy’s dad and the rats and I was crying with laughter). Technically, this second memoir is as much about Zippy’s mom (the one who got up off the couch), but there are chapters on end in which it is still about Zippy. I would say that Zippy is about Zippy’s childhood against the backdrop of Mooreland, IN, while Couch is Zippy coming of age against the backdrop of her mother finding her feet and a type of feminism. You still get a whole, quirky cast of characters, but this is really about Zippy and her mom, and more about Zippy as she discovers her mom as her mom discovers herself.

While Zippy is the classic, Couch really came home to me because I went through a similar experience when I was coming of age. My birth was the result of a teen pregnancy and my parents married and settled into a typical 1980s situation: my father worked his entire adulthood at the exact same car dealership as an auto mechanic and my mother stayed home and raised three children except for those moments (often before Christmas) when they just had to have some extra money, at which point she cut hair or worked at my uncle’s farmstand before returning to the stay-at-home lifestyle. While I was doing high school, my mom got her GRE and went to nursing school. Later, she would go on to more schooling and become a nurse practitioner. My mom didn’t spend decades sitting on a couch eating pork rinds and reading—far from it, but she did come out from behind the vacuum cleaner at the same time I was figuring out who I was and where I fit in the world. For me, there are aspects of the book that felt contemplative and nostalgic.

And others that did not. We are back in Mooreland, ten or fifteen years before my mom’s 1990s awakening, and everything is quirky, technicolor, deeply human, and funny. Kimmel can still write, memoir or novel, and She Got Up Off the Couch is another book full of memorable stories and even more memorable people. We watch the transformation from the Zippy of the first memoir who was completely oblivious to context and the passage of time (a kid), to a teenage Zippy who has, though I hate the expression, woke. One of the more important things during this transition for her was her mother, indeed, getting up off the couch. It is a little more serious and even a bit more empowered (though Zippy always had an energy and stubbornness that translated to power), but still warm (though never, ever sappy), fascinating, and humorous with a particular, resonant voice.

There are all those super-famous memoirs written by super-famous people. Back in 2000, Kimmel seemed to be slack-jawed that a generation of readers would be interested in a story about a little girl in a small town in the Midwest in the 70s with no major plot twists. But there is something about Zippy’s voice and Kimmel’s writing that makes these two books a priceless piece of Americana, for me. I love books that really make history come alive, and these books do that for a time and a place, and one that was broadly experienced in small towns across the country and across a few decades, and they do it in a way that skips the novelization or the hype and lights but not the entertainment. It is a specific story, sure, but it’s also one that is likely to make you think about your own, different, childhood and also to snort, giggle, and raise your eyebrows while you do it.

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