Excerpt from Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Anthropology of an American Girl

A Novel

by Hilary Thayer Hamann

Anthropology of an American Girl
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  • First Published:
    May 2010, 624 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2011, 640 pages

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The sea was bloated from the tide. It was dark and thick on top: you could tell that underneath there was churning. A hurricane was forming off the coast of Cuba, and Cuba isn’t far from where we lived on the South Shore of Long Island, not in terms of weather. Surfers in black rubber sat slope-backed on boards near the jetty, waiting for waves, steady as insects feeding off a deeply breathing beast, lifting and dropping with each wheeze of their massive host. I stripped down to my underwear and T-shirt and left my clothes in a pile. Kate did the same.

The sand closest to the shore was inscribed with drop marks from the rain, and there were springy bits of seaweed the color of iodine gyrating in the chalky foam. I pushed through until I couldn’t see my calves anymore. The water was purplish and rough, and it knocked against me, setting me off balance. It felt good to succumb—sometimes you get tired, always having to be strong in yourself.

Dad said that in Normandy during World War II soldiers had to climb from ships into the sea and then onto shore. They had waded through the ocean with packs on their backs and guns in their arms. He hadn’t fought in Normandy; he just knew about it because he knows lots of things and he’s always reading. He said the men had to get on the beach and kill or be killed. I wondered what those soldiers had eaten for breakfast—scrambled eggs, maybe—all the boys lining two sides of a galley’s gangling table, hanging their heads and taking dismal forkfuls while thinking about what was awaiting them on the shore. Maybe they were thinking of getting one last thing from their lockers, where they kept pictures of their families or of their girls, or maybe just Betty Grable pinups.

It’s one thing to say you’re willing to die for your country, but it’s another thing to have to do so when the moment actually presents itself. I could not have imagined Jack or Denny or anyone from my class dying to defend America, though everyone said that war was coming again, and also the draft, just like with Vietnam. The Russians are crazy, people said. This time it’s going to be nuclear. This time we’re all going to go in one atomic blush.

Kate came alongside me. “God, this water is black.”

My mother refuses to go into the ocean. She respects it, she says, which is basically the same as saying she’s afraid. I go in because it scares me, because certain fears are natural and it’s good to distract yourself from unnatural, more terrifying kinds. For example, the ocean can kill you just like a bomb can kill you, but at least the ocean is not awful like bombs or surreal like overgrown greenhouses, or alarming like the barking sounds that flushing toilets make.

In elementary school we used to have emergency civil defense drills. The lights would go out, and we would rise in synchronized silence, obeying hushed orders and furtive hand signals, rustling like herds of terrified mice––if in fact it can be said that mice manifest in herds rather than as random runners. No one ever told us which particular emergency we were drilling to avoid. Probably Russians then too. The thought of Russians attacking eastern Long Island seemed unlikely, though it is true that East Hampton has beaches like the ones in Normandy. Beaches are a threshold.

I asked Kate if she remembered yellow alerts.

She said she did. “And red ones.”

“Didn’t we have to kneel under our desks for one kind, like this?” I put my head to my chest and locked my fingers around my neck.

“And with the other type,” Kate said, “we had to do the same thing, only in the hall.”

“Right,” I said with a shiver. “That is so fucked up.”

She cupped her mouth and imitated an implausibly tranquil public address warning. It was like a European airport voice, like the one we heard at Charles de Gaulle airport when we went to France with the French Club—sterile and cybernetic, glassy and opaque, like rocks at the bottom of a fishbowl. Kate was good with voices.

Excerpted from Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann Copyright © 2010 by Hilary Thayer Hamann. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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