Missy by Chris Hannan


by Chris Hannan

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

295 pages, 2008







Not for Kids

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


The US edition of Missy, by award winning Scottish playwright Chris Hannan, is an object lesson in what to avoid when designing a book. A cheery chartreuse cover splashed in bright red with that single word title, at first glance, Missy looks like a classic example of contemporary children’s book design. In this instance, this is not a good thing.

The story of an opium-addicted prostitute making bad choices in the American west, Missy is about as far from being a book for kids as can be imagined. The fact that Missy is also oddly charming, entirely engaging and even weirdly enriching will ultimately be less important simply because, with a book that looks like this from an author you’ve probably never heard of, who will venture into this oddly marked territory to read the book? Just who is going to make the investment and the required leap of faith necessary to look beyond what you are apparently being told by the cover of the book? And, by the same token, if covers of books are not there to offer up hints about the actual content, a lot of design is going to waste: plain cardboard would do the job just as effectively. More effectively, in fact. After all, wouldn’t no hint be more enticing than a hint that leads you down the wrong path?

And so here we are, against all odds, offering up a few comments on what is really a quite marvelous and original book. For the record, and as we learn in Hannan’s book, “missy” is 19th century street talk for the liquid opium known as laudanum and it is the drug of choice for Dol McQueen, a 19-year-old flash girl who is traveling the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s intent on separating silver miners from their hard earned cash. It’s an arduous journey and if you’re a fan of fiction from this region and era, it’s one you will have taken before. What’s different here is Dol herself. Not far into Missy, we realize that calling her an unreliable narrator would probably be an understatement. Stoned on laudanum and twisted by her personal history, Dol’s worldview is, at best, somewhat frightening. Hannan captures the mood and the tone perfectly. Here, for example, we wander away from camp on an especially vivid opium trip:

It seemed there was a river between me and Ness and I had dropped down onto the bank …. She called out to me and held up her light and I waded into the water. Halfway across I got so weary I had a yen to lie down on the riverbed that I couldn’t resist. Unlucky for me, the bed was under some water and wasn’t as soft and welcoming as I’d imagined it would be. I couldn’t go to sleep because I had water in my mouth and nose, and Ness had to haul me out of there.

At its core, Missy is an adventure story. A crate of stolen opium has ended up in Dol’s hands and she finds herself contemplating the difference it could make in her life, then trying to orchestrate things so that she can keep it. Trouble, naturally, ensues. In a sense, though, these plot details matter less than the clarity of voice Hannan brings to Dol.

Next day there were places where the road hung to the mountain by the fingertips of one hand. Farther on it cut through banks of snow that had slackened some and thawed, till the ice looked like the dry inside of a meringue.

Missy is unforgettable. Carefully wrought, beautifully executed. And definitely not for kids. | August 2008


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and a contributor to The Rap Sheet. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January 2009.