There is a temptation to read The Girl from the Red Rose Motel through the veil of fiction with the comforting thought that the story of Hazel “Zell” Smalls is far removed from the Fredericksburg area and its schools.
Unfortunately, anyone who has driven along Route 1 near the motels south of Four Mile Fork knows that school buses pick up and drop students off every day at their “homes,” where rooms can be rented by the month. Zell’s story is based in South Carolina but could just as easily be set here, and that is one of the many reasons this book resonates.
Zell is a junior in high school who lives in the Red Rose Motel with her little sister, overworked mother, and alcoholic father. Her school day is an escape from the cramped motel room, but school has social pitfalls that keep Zell hidden within herself.
Her goal on most days is to be present without being noticed. That all changes when she serves In-School Suspension (ISS) with Sterling Lovell. ISS is commonplace for Zell for reasons that are seldom of her own making (the book opens with her getting ISS for not cleaning her ROTC uniform, which she is not able to adequately clean at the motel).
For Sterling, however, it is a new experience because he is one of the high school’s chosen few. He ends up there when an English teacher, Ms. Wilmore, does not find amusement in the efforts of Sterling and his equally well-healed friends to disrupt her class. (Author Susan Beckham Zurenda was an English teacher for more than 30 years, so Ms. Wilmore in role as hero is to be expected, but proves to be richly satisfying.)
It may be more lust at first sight when Sterling spies Zell, but he is intrigued to the point that he starts to question his current relationship with the would-be prom queen of their high school.
The story arcs involving Sterling and Zell are familiar, and even Zell can’t help but notice the Cinderella comparison as she cleans motel rooms for extra money and Sterling arrives to pick her up for dates in his carriage that does not require jumper cables like Zell’s mother’s car.
This is a redemptive tale, or should be, but while the reader anticipates the fairytale ending, Zurenda adds another layer, and another layer, and another layer to Zell’s troubled life. There are hard life lessons to be absorbed and no matter how much Sterling might want to love Zell and change her life’s trajectory he is still only a child with a gilded future about to start at Vanderbilt University when he graduates in the spring.
There is an interesting dynamic at play in these pages because Zurenda’s storytelling is well-paced with a number of side stories that propel the book forward, but she also creates friction in not allowing Zell an easy path to the future we all want for her.
We want Zell to escape the Red Rose Motel, and we want Zell to take little sister Chloe with her. She is a noble and beautiful young woman. She has so much to offer the world, but even with the help of an English teacher hero and an earnest boyfriend, her world is still housed in a motel room with threadbare covers, a leaky toilet, and a father pounding Pabst Blue Ribbon while watching professional wrestling.
The best fables and fairy tales are supposed to have morals. The moral of The Girl from the Red Rose Motel is that education remains the gateway to a better life. We just have to hope those motels are on school bus routes with Ms. Wilmores waiting in homeroom.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second most prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. You can find some of his video book reviews at Fredericksburg.com.