We are thrilled to announce the publication of “Small Country,” the latest Ploughshares Solo by Patricia Grace King. The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish long stories and essays in a digital format. Recent Ploughshares Solos include “Urchin” by Lisa Heiserman Perkins and “Portrait” by Kathleen Hill. Visit our website to see all of the Solos.
Fleeing a turbulent Guatemala with her parents, Penny returns to America and is forced to deal with a fresh kind of trauma: summer Bible camp for Mennonite teens. Along with her outspoken and rebellious friend Gina, Penny struggles to deal with her past, the camp’s fierce regulations, and the sexual energy that electrifies the air between the campers (and even the counselors). This coming-of-age story offers an intimate look into a young girl’s attempt to find her place and start figuring out which rules are worth breaking.
An excerpt from the Solo:
It’s our first morning at Bethany Mennonite Bible Camp, and Gina Cahill and I might be doomed. The other girls wear prayer coverings big as soup bowls; they skin their hair back from the face. They wear their sleeves to the elbows, their skirts past the knees. Under their skirts they wear sneakers. Gina and I have on Dr. Scholl’s sandals and Candies; we wear wrap-around skirts with rainbow or handkerchief prints. We’ve brought bathing suits, too, but too bad for us. There’s no pool at this camp, just a noisy brown creek—and we’re not allowed to get in. It would make our skirts wet, Eunice says, like that matters. What we have instead are Red Rover and a kind of field hockey, played with kickballs and foam-covered mallets, and afternoon hayrides through some Mennonite farmer’s bean patch.
Gina rolls her eyes at me, behind Eunice’s back. I’m gonna kill you. Americans talk this way all the time. It sounds different in Spanish: Te voy a matar. Like something you ought to believe. Back at her house in Boone, Gina has her own record player and whole stacks of albums: the Bee Gees, Shaun Cassidy, Bette Midler singing “The Rose.” Songs that were new to me six months ago, so I memorized every verse and read the liner notes, too. At my house all we’ve got are my mother’s marimba and my dad’s guitar, which neither one’s touched since we moved here, and a beat-up piano that came with the rent. Some days my mother uncovers the keys, but then she just sits there and cries. Gina’s parents let us drink Tab and watch late-night TV until we are dizzy with it. “That’s not good for you, Penny,” my own parents say when I stumble home red-eyed, singing Rod Stewart. But they never stop me from going back.
My parents are worked up about being Mennos again, now that we live in the States. They want me to be Mennonite, too. Send me to Mennonite camp, our new pastor advised. He even offered to drive. I’ve come dragging Gina along. But the other girls shy away when they see us; for that matter, so do the boys. The boys’ hair makes them look nervous, short on the sides and scraped back with water, so their pink scalps shine through. They wear black or navy blue chino pants. Jeans, Eunice says, are proud clothes.
“What’s wrong with proud, Eunice?” I ask, as she walks us to morning chapel.
“God is happier,” Eunice says, “when we’re humble.”
I’ve never thought of God as having feelings like mine—that he can be glad, or bummed out. I do think of God when I sing. Then he’s a presence nearby, awake and quietly burning.
About the Author
Patricia Grace King grew up in North Carolina and spent years in Spain and Guatemala. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a Ph.D. in English from Emory University. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Nimrod, and other journals. Her chapbooks, “The Death of Carrie Bradshaw” and “Rubia,” won the Kore Press Short Fiction and the Jeanne Leiby Memorial contests, respectively. She is the recipient of a fiction fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center and is the 2013-2014 Carol Houck Smith Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She lives in Chicago (most of the week) with her husband. Her website is patriciagraceking.com.
Interested in submitting a story for the series?
Solo submissions are accepted during our regular reading period, June 1 to January 15. If you have a longer story or essay — roughly 6,000 to 25,000 words — please read our guidelines and submit online. Make sure you select “Pshares Solos: Long Story/Novella” from the drop down box under “genre.”