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The Compulsive Reader
Reviewed by Elizabeth King Humphrey

Normally I wouldn’t start with quoting a book’s back cover, but the back of the novel Pug Sheridan heralds it as: “A spiritual odyssey set in the rural South of a century past…[it] depicts a young woman’s arduous quest for identity and redemption.” This is probably one of the most accurate portrayals of a book on its back cover.

Sandra Cline’s “pugnacious” narrator, Sadie Lou Sheridan (a.k.a., Pug), is a product of an ugly part of the history of the American South. As such, Cline does an admirable job balancing the difficulties of young girls being non-prejudicial in an outwardly racist era. But Cline takes time to allow Pug to gain her voice to describe her own confusion over what society is telling her and what she feels is her own truth. To Cline’s credit, she takes her time, patiently exploring the people and places of Pug’s surroundings. A complex, complicated time is made a little more clear as Cline lets the reader understand why Pug struggles with the secrets she does, specifically surrounding The Secret Society of the Seven Sisters.

Without trying to sound trite, Cline grapples with the ugliness in American society in a magical way. She gives a sense of a bygone era, balancing the stories of unlikely friends surrounding a central character: Pug Sheridan. The story is told by Pug in first person and Pug’s voice really does seem to gain in strength as Pug matures.

The young girls’ journeys to adulthood are engaging and, although they must live in a suffocating and small Southern town, seemingly modern. Many of the characters are would-be champions, if awards were given for just surviving. Cline incorporates some of the memorable activities that rise to the surface in the midst of gossip. Secrets and activities the characters must contend with include snake handling and bad luck, witches and womanhood, extended families and family secrets.

Pug is the leader among her band of The Secret Society of the Seven Sisters: Fanny, Fawn, Egypt, Ruby, Violet and Newt. They number seven, as do the daughters of Atlas, which I suspect the seven southerners pattern more than just their secret names.

For Pug and her friends, Cline portrays a simpler time, when riding horses was the favored mode of transportation. But Pug Sheridan is strong in its application of modernity of subjects and themes among a non-contemporary setting. Cline is also cognizant of traditions and community standards, which also become an area where Pug and her friends have some difficulties.

Friendship is a strong theme and Cline dips into the emotions as the tomboy Pug and her friends handle the growing pains that morph into adult lives.

A maturing Pug details:

Overwhelming sorrow gripped my spirit and held firm. I broke down completely, weeping as I spoke, garbled words and syllables that Rola was somehow able to understand….‘A friend’s eye is the best mirror,’ Rola answered. ‘To give that up would be like erasin’ part of yourself. As for those who criticize you, just remember—no two persons ever lit a fire in this town without disagreein’ about which match to use.’

Throughout the novel, the seven fight for their right to exist as a group, which seems a timeless fight. One that resonates with today’s young, as well as, old adults. Both ages of audiences will enjoy Pug Sheridan and her feistiness. However, not all of the novel’s scenes are the girls laughing and bonding around a campfire. Pug Sheridan addresses mortality, childbirth and incest. Some of the themes may be more suitable for the older reader.

Sandra Cline is a former producer and host of a radio talk show. She is an “avid supporter of Pro-Literacy and an ardent environmentalist.” Pug Sheridan is her debut novel.