Works in Progress - Spring 2018

Educating Lillian

An excerpt from the forthcoming novel Children Made of Fire

By Kevin Wilson | March 5, 2018
Beryl Chan/Flickr
Beryl Chan/Flickr

Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang, is at work on a new novel called Children Made of Fire. It tells the story of Lillian, whose life changes when she enrolls “at a fancy girl’s school hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere.”

I grew up in the valley of that mountain, just poor enough that I could imagine a way out. I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was so vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god had assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated my mother before returning to his home atop a mountain. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned. I preferred to think he was dead, that he wholly was incapable of saving me from my unhappiness.

This school, the Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School, offered one or two full scholarships each year to girls in the valley who showed promise. And, though it might be hard to believe now, I showed a fucking lot of promise. I had spent my childhood gritting my teeth and smashing everything to bits in the name of excellence. I taught myself to read at three years old, and when I was eight, my mother put me in charge of our finances, the weekly budgeting from the envelopes of cash that she brought home at night. I made straight A’s. At first, it was purely out of an instinctual desire to be superlative, as if I suspected that I was a superhero and was merely testing the limits of my powers. But once teachers started to tell me about Iron Mountain and the scholarship, information that my mother could not have cared less about, I redirected my efforts. I didn’t know that the school was just some ribbon that rich girls obtained on their way to a destined future. I thought it was a training ground for Amazons. I made other students cry at the spelling bee. I plagiarized scientific studies and dumbed them down just enough to win county science fairs. I memorized poems about Harlem and awkwardly recited them to my mom’s boyfriends, who thought I was some weird demon speaking in tongues. I played point guard on the boys’ traveling basketball team because there wasn’t one for girls. I made people in my town, whether they were poor or middle-class, especially upper-middle-class, feel good, like I was something they could agree on, a sterling representative of this little backwoods county. I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.

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