Delta Girls by Gayle Brandeis

By SMW Staff

In Delta Girls, named a ‘Best New Paperback” by Entertainment Weekly, the lives of two disparate women—a single mother working hard to make ends meet as a migrant farm worker and a young figure skater at the top of her game—entwine in an unforgettable novel of warmth, depth, and wisdom.”


Lifts were her favorite.

To the average viewer watching pairs in an ice arena or on tv, it looked as if the guy was doing all the work, as if all the girl had to do was look pretty and let her partner bear her up to heaven. But a partner couldn’t lift a girl who wasn’t lifting herself, too. When she was over her partner’s head, his hand pressed into her ribs or stomach or the side of her thigh, she had to harden herself against his palm, his thumb, lift herself away from it. Otherwise she would end up with hand-shaped bruises on her skin, maybe a cracked rib. And that’s if she didn’t fall.

Karen liked lifts because everything looked smaller, more manageable, from the air. The judges with their score sheets. The television people with their cameras. Her mother in fur boots leaning against the boards. For those few seconds of height, none of them mattered. They were earthbound, finite. She was soaring; she was towering; she was sweetly, briefly above it all. The closest she could get to escape.

Nathan Main was different from Karen’s skating partner of five years, Brian. Nathan didn’t treat her like a princess or a butterfly. He didn’t apologize for shoving his hand between her legs during a lift or catching a couple of strands of her hair under his blade during a death spiral. “You can take it,” he said, and she realized that she could. Nathan treated her like a woman. A body. Strong and capable, worthy of desire. Her mom Deena treated her like a body, too, but a body that needed to be changed, perfected, a body that was never quite right. Platinum dye since 11, nose job at 13, a countless string of diets. With Nathan, it was “Here we are in our skins. What are we going to do about it?”

Karen was nervous when her mom first suggested pairing with him. His latest partner Tabitha was recovering from a concussion and a fractured vertebra. Karen’s partner Brian had gone off to Harvard to study French literature and be surrounded by smart boys. Regionals were only two months away. Part of Karen hoped her mom wouldn’t find her a new partner; part of her hoped she could sit this competition cycle out, stay away from the ice long enough to want to get back on, but she knew her mom would never let that happen. Especially not with the Olympics coming up in a little over a year.

“He has the best triple axel of any pairs skater out there,” Deena said. “Just think of it. With your jumps, you’d be brilliant together.”

Deena had groomed her daughter to be a single’s champion, but when Karen was twelve and placed sixth at Junior sectionals, Deena told her she didn’t have the chops to go it alone. “You have the jumps, sweetheart,” she said, her voice matter of fact, her eyes calm, “but not the pizazz.”

Brian had stellar technicality, enough to get them on the podium of most regional competitions and close to placing at Nationals, but Nathan—Nathan had pizazz. Groupies followed him from town to town—a few raised “Go Tabathan” signs for the pair, but most held signs like “Marry Me, Nathan” and “Watch Out, Tabitha, Nathan’s Mine!” He and Tabitha had placed third in Nationals the previous year, and had done respectably at Worlds. They were considered America’s next great hope until he dropped her in the middle of a Detroiter—a lift banned from competition—during a summer tour.

Karen was 17, Nathan 22 when Deena arranged a private early morning try-out session, the sun just starting to send a hint of itself into the sky. Nathan showed up at the rink in Connecticut on a pale green Vespa in jeans and a tight yellow t-shirt, his skates in a black leather backpack, just as Karen and her mom pulled up in their BMW. He wore a multi-colored knit beanie instead of a helmet, his dark shaggy hair swooping out in tufts. Karen tried not to look at the nipples poking under his shirt. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days; his blue eyes were bloodshot when he took off his sunglasses.

“Not used to getting up so early,” he said as he shook Deena’s hand. She gave a coquettish shrug that made Karen wince.

“But you’re worth it, sweetheart.” He turned to Karen, looking her up and down. “You’re worth every second of missed sleep.”

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