play seventeen: how i learned to drive

the cadillac el dorado.
the cadillac el dorado.

Author: Paula Vogel

Published: 1997 (won Pulitzer in 1998)

Synopsis: Our narrator Li’l Bit takes us along the mainline of her difficult life and her fraught relationship with her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck. A series of purported driving lessons that extend from the cusp of pre-adolescence into adulthood explore the role that our rampant cultural misogyny plays in creating a social framework for psycho-sexual abuse.

What moved me: perhaps what I found most distressing about this work was the sympathy I felt for Uncle Peck. His manipulation of Li’l Bit is inexcusable – the abusive power that adults may hold over children is perhaps the most vile manifestation of control. However. Vogel gives him a monologue in which he makes his nephew promise that he will never be ashamed of his emotions, and we see his own suppression of whatever terrible demons (from his time as a soldier in the Pacific) force him to sometimes stand still, silent, choking so that this emotion does not spew out of his mouth. My sympathy led to self-disgust. How could I identify with this man’s trauma when his behaviour is so reprehensible? But that is the power of Vogel’s work. Humans are messy, complicated, loving, destructive beasts, and she forces us to encounter them fully.

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