For fans longing for a raunchier, more complex version of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club, may I introduce you to Rochelle Hurt’s The J Girls: A Reality Show? Okay — that’s a bit misleading. There is no formal club, no babysitting, no perfect Connecticut neighborhood, and just one standalone text — Hurt’s poetry collection. In many ways, the J Girls live the antithesis of the picturesque lives of Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, Stacey, and Dawn (also shout out to Mallory, Jessi, Logan, Shannon, and Abby). Set working-class Gaudeville, Ohio, Hurt’s collection serves as the commentary and content for reality show footage “recovered from a set of three VHS tapes found at a community rummage sale” (I know it’s a lot to wrap your head around).
The recovered “reality show” footage includes six episodes flanked by opening and end credits. The J Girls are a group of high schoolers growing up in the late 90s and early 00s in the Rust Belt: “Jocelyn. Jodie. Jennifer. Jacqui. Joelle: Gaudeville girl-gods of quick fingers and full pockets.” Like The Baby-Sitters Club, the group has auxiliary members who find their way into the plot — Jacqui’s mom and an anonymous woman who Hurt describes as “nobody you can see; a safer name than me.”
If you couldn’t tell already, this book is a wild ride like much of the content in the MTV’s golden age of reality television. Just like the drama that unfolded in the best seasons of The Real World (hello New Orleans and Hawai’i!), The J Girls is action-packed with sexy escapades, relationship sagas, and defiant characters. Instead of living in a swanky house with strangers, the girls are close friends who spend the “show” reckoning with tensions between Catholic school teachings, societal expectations, and personal desires through blow jobs, prayers, and badly kept secrets.
Once you wrap your head around Hurt’s form and structure, The J Girls is quite a refreshing portrayal of Midwestern teenage girlhood — more focused on exploring the messiness of truth than pleasantries. Hurt refuses to let us hide from the realities of growing up often relegated to the shadows and closets. I’m far from vanilla, but even I found myself sheepishly reading Jacqui’s monologue, “Ode to the C Word.”
if I name it, I name myself and come
alive with dirty chatter. Self-satisfied,
my glossy lips won’t quiet now.
I could chew this cuss all night.
[Okay so note: This is maybe not the best book to read at work or on family vacation].
Individually, Hurt’s poems are poignantly raw. When strung together, they provide striking characterizations of each of the J Girls as they grapple with their sexuality, relationships, and reputations as teenagers. However, readers might find themselves easily lost amongst the twists and turns of Hurt’s poetic metaphors and word play. Her intricately crafted poems do not make for the most dynamic page-turning summer read.
Take for instance, “Viral,” one of the most memorable poems in the collection — a monologue from Jodie, a Chevy-driving Taco Bell employee. Jodie recounts the night she flashed a customer while working the drive-thru window, “in a…warm-breath cloud of / spiced beef and tube cheese.” Eighteen lines later, the boobflash incident becomes a thesis on body shaming, respectability, and reputation in this small midwestern town. Amidst the chaotic, unnecessarily dense retelling, Hurt still somehow manages to reference “Fire Sauce” (the best sauce obviously), lube, and the PTA. Perhaps, this is the magic within The J Girls — Hurt’s ability to unearth depth within the mundane in ways that make us nostalgic for our own high school days when we too wondered, whispered, and performed coming-of-age rituals in cars, bathrooms, and fields.
Paying homage to her upbringing in Youngstown, Ohio, Hurt’s sophomore collection breathes life into the memories that many readers have of their own upbringings — mall trips with friends, being in love with Bath and Body Works fragrances, and loving/hating our first cars, jobs, homes, and lovers. Despite this, the book lacks the attention to the rich racial and ethnic diversity of the Midwest that I sought as an Ohio-based Black reader. Instead, Hurt’s poems and narratives of the “Gaudeville” J Girls perpetuate a centuries-old myth of a monolithic (white) Midwest. If there is any racial diversity in the book, I missed it while trying to decode Hurt’s thick stanzas stacked full with double-meanings and mystery. It’s not that Hurt doesn’t have the range to include more depth and characters who look like me; her priorities are just — elsewhere.
Despite this oversight, The J Girls is a fascinating poetry collection meant for those of us “older” readers slowly creeping our way into middle-age and longing for a mall trip with our besties or backseat make-out sesh with our crush. For many of us, there is something so familiar about the J Girls’ journeys. We all have been or have known a Jocelyn, Jodie, Jennifer, Jacqui, or Joelle — just wading through adolescence in a world where that shames girls for our curiosities, sexualities, and messiness more than not. In this familiarity, The J Girls serves as a requiem for those girls we used to be or know — the girls who found themselves between the legs of another searching for love, acceptance, vengeance, or something more than what their world would ever offer.