“Sugar, and spice, and everything nice; / That’s what little girls are made of.” So goes the old verse that, in spite of its antiquated views on gender, remains a popular nursery rhyme. Girls have come a long way since Robert Southey committed those lines to the page back in the early 19th century, but there are still some forms of girlhood that are rarely depicted in popular media. Girls in books or films might be catty, but they’re rarely allowed to have deep, meaningful conflict. They might be funny, but rarely raunchy. They might be sluts or prudes, but they rarely get to be ambivalent about their sexuality. They might, in short, be girls, but they rarely get to be fully human.
That’s not the case, though, for the teenage girls in Emelia Symington-Fedy’s memoir Skid Dogs. They’re gross. They’re horny. They crack off-colour jokes (like, really off-colour jokes). They struggle – sometimes individually, sometimes together – with what it means to crave male attention in a world where most of the boys and men seem hell-bent on objectifying, coercing, and even assaulting them.
Symington-Fedy’s narrative runs on two tracks: one that begins in 1991 when, at the age of almost 14, she moves to a town in rural British Columbia and meets a new group of friends, and another that begins in 2011, when an 18-year-old in that same small town is murdered on the railway tracks where Symington-Fedy and her friends hung out. Paired storylines like this can be tricky, a challenge for authors to keep the stakes high enough and the plots paced appropriately so that readers remain engaged with the parallel accounts, but Symington-Fedy is a skilled enough writer to navigate this. Both timelines in Skid Dogs are riveting right up until the last page.
The later narrative also involves Symington-Fedy working through the challenging relationship she has with her mother. Theirs is a dynamic that may be familiar to girls with mothers who were influenced by second-wave feminism. Symington-Fedy’s mother is fiercely independent, a sort of homesteader who does her own renovations and is keen on raising chickens and canning. But when, at 14, Symington-Fedy gets blackout drunk and likely endures some kind of sexual assault, her mother is more angry and embarrassed than sympathetic. Pointing to an old school picture of her daughter, Symington-Fedy’s mother says, “They did whatever they wanted to you. I’ll never be able to look at that girl again.” In 2011, Symington-Fedy is also trying to quell her fear and rage over her mother’s terminal cancer, often making her mother the target of her outbursts. In spite of the difficulties, it’s clear that they love each other fiercely, even if that love sometimes is expressed as anger.
Symington-Fedy’s prose is keen and unsparing, especially when describing her own motivations and behaviour. She’s not one to let herself off the hook, even in moments when it would surely have been tempting to. Her writing can be screamingly funny, and in serious passages she never resorts to sentimentality. Every emotional moment feels fully earned.
Skid Dogs is so much more than a coming-of-age memoir. It’s an examination of the dangers and joys of girlhood. It’s a sober look at the way our culture treats women’s bodies, particularly young women’s bodies. It’s a close-up on the social dynamics of teenage girls, one that never shies away from the disgusting or difficult. But mostly, it’s just a really, really good read.