The short story Brownies by ZZ Packer had me from the first line.
“By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie troop 909.”
I’d not read ZZ Packer before. But I will be reading her again soon. She tackles this story about underlying race relations and humanity from such an interesting angle. Her prose is a delight.
The narrator, Laurel, is a quiet observant Brownie who wants to stay out of trouble. The problem is Arnetta, the headstrong, brash girl in her troop who tends to stretch the truth to create excitement.
When the girls first pass another Brownie troop by the bathroom, Laurel describes them this way, “they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla.” But after passing these girls, Arnetta describes them differently, “They smell like Chihuahuas. Wet Chihuahuas.”
The recurring use of description is awesome. On the second page, one of the mothers is wearing a belt made of feathers, and the girls are told the belt is made of the “feathers of baby pigeons.”
The narrator Laurel says “…I was disturbed by the realization that I had never actually seen a baby pigeon.”
After this, Laurel describes how the girls in her school began using the term “caucasian” as a joke. If someone dressed inappropriately, or appeared to be uncoordinated, they were tagged with a version of the phrase, “What are you? Caucasian?”
And a short time later, Laurel returns to the pigeon theme. “When you lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was easy to forget about whites. Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about.”
So when Arnetta claims she heard a white Brownie calling them a derogatory name, she starts plotting revenge. Arnetta says, “We can’t let them get away with calling us niggers. I say we teach them a lesson.” Several of her peers don’t want to participate, but they are too timid to stand up to the bellowing Arnetta.
Arnetta keeps her fellow Brownies in line by bullying. She turns to the Laurel at one point and snarls, “Snot, you’re not going to be a bitch and tell Mrs. Margolin, are you?”
When they finally confront the white girl scouts in the bathroom, some interesting revelations are made. They learn the white girls have “special needs,” and their plan to attack the girls falls away. In the end, as they leave Camp Crescendo on the bus, Laurel relates a story about how a Mennonite family had done work for her father. She says, “it was the only time he’d have a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free.” She comes to understand that some people are mean and cannot be stopped.
Brownies was listed in One Story’s recent list of top ten favorite short stories.