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Book Excerpts

A 1984 flashback reveals family dynamics forged in a trying political campaign

Author Elisabeth Hyde creates vivid scenes of sibling love and discord that play out over decades and converge on one weekend in "Go Ask Fanny"

"Go Ask Fannie" by Elisabeth Hyde.

Elisabeth Hyde is the author of five critically acclaimed novels, most recentlyIn The Heart of The Canyon,” a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a People magazine Great Read. Her fourth novel, “The Abortionist’s Daughter,” became a bestseller in Great Britain. Trained as a lawyer, she worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., before she started writing full time. She lives in Boulder.

The following is an excerpt from “Go Ask Fannie.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards winner for General Fiction

“Go Ask Fannie” is about three siblings returning to their father’s farmhouse in northern New Hampshire for a long, contentious weekend. Much of the novel takes place in 2016, but in this flashback chapter, it’s 1984, and Murray, the father, is running for Congress in New Hampshire. His wife, Lillian, is an aspiring writer, and there are 4 children at that point: Ruth (16), Daniel (15), George (12), and Lizzie (6).

The Blaire-Mobile is the family van.

Chapter 8

The idea for the Blaire-Mobile, born after lovemaking on the Fourth of July, blossomed into reality after Daniel’s incident. Murray wanted the people of New Hampshire to see that they were a normal family, one that did things together on the weekend.  A family that explored the state together, and stopped for pie and coffee now and then, and took a swim at one of the state’s many pristine lakes – as opposed to, say, a family with a wayward teen who went off and got himself drunk as a skunk at an amusement park while his mother was out yelling at anti-abortionists.

Ruth, at sixteen, was excited to have an official role.  Daniel, however, saw this compulsory togetherness as punishment and couldn’t believe his parents were going to make him drive around with them on a perfectly good Saturday.  George wanted to paint a peace sign on the old blue van; Murray vetoed that idea, but allowed him to plaster the bumpers with Murray’s blue and white stickers. Lizzie just wanted to bring her Barbie.  

Despite the underlying discord, they were a photogenic bunch, packed into the van with Murray at the wheel.  Lillian agreed not to smoke in the car, and the children perfected the art of the white-toothed smile that showed off years of budget-busting orthodontia.  

The problem was that, even though it was a van, it was a very small space for a family of six to confine themselves for a long day full of campaign stops, and things could get touchy.  Squabbles usually broke out within the first hour. Daniel’s feet stank. Daniel stank.  George wanted to make the A band this year, so he brought his trumpet along.  Ruth cried that it was blasting her eardrums. Lizzie kept singing the same song over and over again, right in Murray’s ear.  Ruth was getting carsick from Daniel’s feet. Lillian broke down and had a cigarette. … 

Author Elisabeth Hyde. (Photo by Joan Simon)

All through September they spent their Saturdays tooling around New Hampshire’s second Congressional District.  Sometimes Murray allowed Ruth to drive. They visited Hanover, the White Mountains, the Great North Woods. They visited a shoe factory and a woolen mill.  They toured a meat processing facility, where they got free baloney roll-ups with frilly toothpicks. Leaves changed color and they got stuck in traffic jams with leaf-peepers from New York. 

“I gave up football for this?” said Daniel.

“You didn’t make the football team,” Ruth reminded him.

“Because I have a bum knee,” Daniel shot back.

“Poor cripple,” said Ruth.

“Quaker Meeting,” said Lillian.

Meanwhile, they were constantly having to deal with the press.  It amazed Lillian how much they could dig up. They found out that Murray had been a member of SDS for a brief time in college.  That Lillian had dated a Black Panther one summer. “It was just one date,” she protested, but nonetheless the story ran in large part focusing on her wealthy childhood and speculating that her association with student radicals in college was simply a way of rebelling against her privileged background.

Murray slammed the newspaper down.  

“This isn’t reporting, it’s total conjecture,” he fumed.  “Who cares who you hung out with back then?!”

“What’s a Black Panther?” Lizzie asked.  She had shaved her Barbie with Murray’s electric razor the day before, and was now trying to fix matters by scotch-taping the hair back on.  “Are there any in New Hampshire?”

“You dated a Black Panther?” Ruth asked.  It being 1984, she was learning about the Sixties in her U.S. History class.  

“Once,” Lillian said.  “It was never serious.”

“Was he really black?” Lizzie asked.

“No, he was lime green,” Ruth said.  

“Ruth,” Lillian said.  “Really.”

“I’ll bet Grandfather didn’t like that,” Daniel declared, always titillated by a little family discord.

“No,” said Lillian, “he didn’t.”  She didn’t tell them how her father refused to shake the young man’s hand.  It still mortified her.

Suddenly Lizzie whapped her Barbie on the table.  “It’s not working!”

“Let me try,” said Lillian, taking the doll.  “You need to think before you act, Lizzie dear.”

“I wish I’d never been born!” Lizzie cried, burying her head in Lillian’s lap.

George came out of the pantry holding the jar of Skippy.  “We’re out.”

“That’s because you eat it like ice cream,” said Ruth. 

“I’m a growing boy,” said George.

“You’re a Neanderthal is what you are,” said Ruth.  

“What’s that on your chin, Ruth?” said Daniel, who sensed his plump younger brother at a disadvantage.  “Is that another zit?”

Ruth touched her chin.

“Leave it alone,” said Lillian.  “You’ll just make it worse.”

“It’s growing as I watch,” said Daniel.  “Oh my God, it’s turning white on top.”

Ruth burst into tears and fled the room.

Lillian sighed.  “Really, Daniel, was that necessary?”

“She called George a Neanderthal,” said Daniel.  “Watch this,” and he began juggling three tangerines. Lizzie tried, and promptly dropped them.  

“Nobody answered me,” she said, scrambling to pick them up.

“I forgot what you asked, dear,” said Lillian.

“What’s a Black Panther?”

“A radical,” said Ruth, back now wearing cakey orange makeup.

“What’s a radical?” asked Lizzie.

And so Ruth proceeded to explain the different political factions in the United States, going on about liberals and conservatives and the radical right and left, SDS, SNCC, the antiwar movement, the John Birch Society, and Patty Hearst, so engrossed in her didactic role that she barely noticed that everyone had left the room except George, who, having located a new jar of Skippy, had made himself a mountain of toast and was going through the stack, piece by piece, annihilating the jar of peanut butter that Lillian had allocated for the next week’s sandwiches.  

Meanwhile, the polls were tightening as voters stopped worrying so much about a sex scandal as about the collectively horrific prospect of electing a Democrat.  In an effort to discredit Murray’s qualifications for public office, his opponent was relentless. Murray missed a tax payment on the house one year. (True.) He represented the Mafia.  (Ridiculous.) He represented drug addicts. (Half true; he’d once defended a junkie and gotten him into a methadone clinic down in Boston.) He co-mingled his clients’ funds. (False.) Each charge required some kind of rebuttal, which took away from Murray’s dwindling time to talk about the issues that mattered.

“Go Ask Fannie” by Elisabeth Hyde.

On Lillian they dug up more dirt.  The Union Leader made a big deal of the fact that she’d been seen leaving the new Copley Plaza in Boston laden with bags from expensive stores, implying extravagance, implying in turn a lack of connection with Murray’s more blue-collar base.  This was unfair; Lillian’s mother had simply taken her shopping for her birthday – and they bought from the sale rack, for heaven’s sake.  Another reporter, following up on the story, noted that she’d claimed a Home Office deduction on her taxes one year.  What was her business? She was a writer, she replied. Did he want to come and see her office? Did he want to see her stack of rejection letters?

But nothing prepared her for the next big question.  Lillian and the reporter were sitting at a booth in a coffee shop on Main Street in Concord.  The reporter opened a manila envelope and slid a folded, yellowed newspaper across the tabletop.  It was a copy of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, whose front page showed a black and white picture of an amateur but very convincing mural of Fidel Castro, complete with cigar, that had been painted on the southern wall of the Northampton, Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce.  “Smith Seniors Arrested in Act of Vandalism,” the accompanying headline read, and the article went on to describe how Lillian Holmes and two other students had been apprehended by the police just as they were filling in the man’s scruffy beard. 

“Do you care to comment on this?” asked the reporter.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” said Lillian. “I was twenty-two.   It was our Senior Prank. Why don’t you ask me where my husband stands on Aid to Dependent Children?  Or about my volunteer work at the soup kitchen?”

“My my,” said the reporter.

“Go to hell,” said Lillian, and she reached for the newspaper, but he took it back.  

“Did you plead guilty?” he asked.

With her father’s attorney by her side, Lillian had in fact pleaded guilty to vandalism, and she had been sentenced to a month of community service, plus the cost of sandblasting the besmirched wall.  

“This interview is over,” Lillian said.  “Write what you want. Here’s my statement.  ‘As a college student I was exposed to a variety of ideas, some of which can be attributed to youthful idealism.  I do not support, nor have I ever supported, the Communist regime in Cuba.’ There. Are you happy?”

The reporter was scribbling furiously.  

“I have what I need,” he said.  

“Good,” said Lillian, standing up.  “Now go fuck yourself.”

She stormed out of the coffee shop.  By the time she arrived home she’d calmed down, but she got upset all over again when she saw Murray, because she’d never told him about the vandalism charge.  Murray himself had just gotten home and was upstairs in the bedroom, changing out of his work clothes. Lillian sat on the window seat.

“How’d the interview go?” he asked, loosening his tie.

She told him about her confrontation with the reporter.

“Wait – you’re saying you painted a picture of Castro on the Chamber of Commerce building?”

“Mural, actually.”  She tried to keep the note of pride out of her voice.  Because it had been a very good mural, in her opinion. For someone who didn’t think of herself as an artist.

“And you got arrested?”

“I paid a fine,” said Lillian. “And got the wall cleaned.”

“How come you never told me about this?” 

“I should have,” said Lillian.  “I’m sorry.”

Murray had had a bad day.  A new poll had come out. “Sorry’s not going to save my ass in the polls,” he said.  “Not when people find out I married a Communist sympathizer.”

“I’m not a sympathizer!” Lillian exclaimed.  “And I never was! Look, I was taking a course on the politics of the Caribbean.  And I just thought it would be funny. I was young. I wasn’t really thinking.”

“Still, it’ll look bad,” said Murray.  “Joe McCarthy is alive and well in some circles in this state.  God damn it,” he said.

Just then there was a knock at the door.  Murray opened it a crack. Lizzie reported that George was throwing up hot dogs. 

“We’re having a discussion, Lizzie,” said Murray.  “Your mother will be out in a minute.”

“He missed the toilet,” Lizzie said.

“Give us a minute,” Murray said crossly.

When Lizzie had left, Lillian went and sat down on the bed and hugged her arms around herself.  “I should have told you,” she said again. “I should have told you way back in the beginning.”

“So why didn’t you?”

She tried to go back in time, to her frame of mind at age twenty-three, when she’d met Murray that summer at the law firm.  She must have thought that this young law student would have thought poorly of her. She’d certainly never thought about the ramifications of her arrest record coming back to haunt them in a far-into-the-future political campaign.

“I don’t know,” she said. …

Chastised, and now in a very bad mood, she left him in the bedroom and went downstairs to fix dinner. She turned on the oven, put the pot pies onto a baking sheet, and started making an apple crunch for dessert. 

But she was not a happy cook tonight, even making a good dessert.  She was mad at Murray and mad at herself and scared that the reporter was going to report how she told him to go fuck himself.  Between that and the event with the teachers down in Nashua, people were going to think she had a mouth.

She did have a mouth.  And to tell the truth, she was proud of it these days.  She should have more of a mouth, she thought. 

On the first Saturday in November, four days before Election Day, Murray’s aides scheduled a large rally on the State House lawn.  Murray said he expected everyone in the family to attend.  

“I don’t see what having me up there on the stage with you will do to influence voters,” Daniel grumbled.  He was so touchy these days. Lillian missed the clown.

“We’re a family,” Murray said.  “We stick together.”

“Can I talk into the microphone?” Lizzie asked.

“If anyone gets to speak, it should be me,” said Ruth.  “I at least know what the issues are in this campaign.”

“You want to speak?” said Murray.  “You can speak if you want to.”

“I can?”  Having gotten what she asked for, Ruth allowed a nervous smile.

“Sure,” said Murray.  “You write up a little speech and run it by me.  No more than five minutes.”

And so Ruth began to draft a speech, practicing it in the bathroom every night.  Two days before the rally, she tried it out on the family.

“No comments from the peanut gallery,” Murray warned the other children as they gathered in their cluttered living room.  “Respect your sister. She’s worked hard on this, and she’s got to look professional.”

“This is so stupid,” said Daniel, slumping on the sofa.  

“What’s eating you, son?” Murray demanded.  “Every time we do something now, you act like the wise guy.  Something wrong at school?”

Daniel crossed his arms and glared.  George came into the living room with a big bowl of popcorn, as though it were movie night.  Lillian sat in a rocking chair. She never could relax on the sofa because she always noticed how shabby the chintz fabric was, and felt overwhelmed about choosing something new.  It was a sore point.

“Okay, Ruth,” said Murray.  “Let’s hear it.”

Ruth stood in front of the fireplace.  She was still dressed in her school clothes – a pleated plaid skirt, a white blouse, and a cardigan sweater.  Suddenly self-conscious with her family, she splayed her index cards, closed her eyes, mouthed some words, and then began. 

“I’m up here because I believe in my father,” she said, addressing the seascape above the sofa.  “I believe in the things he stands for.” She went on to touch on all of Murray’s talking points, and it struck Lillian that Ruth had a flair for oratory, something she hadn’t realized. She looked at all of her children and despite her sour attitude toward the campaign these days, she suddenly felt such love for them:  Ruth up there looking poised and unruffled and so sure of herself; Daniel going through this awful phase but coming out a man who could make people laugh, take them out of their bad moods and inject them with a sillier view of life; George taking care of others, the same way he’d always taken care of Lizzie; and jumpy little Lizzie living outside the mold, doing whatever she chose to do.  Her love was visceral; it rose from her gut up through her chest and into her throat, like smoke, and with it came a terrifying sense of loss, because there was so much at stake in the very fact of their lives. She had the sudden conviction that despite all the normal day-to-day discord, her children would one day be as tightly aligned as a jigsaw; that after she and Murray were long gone, the four of them would turn to each other, lean on each other, love each other to the ends of the earth; and that she had had a hand in this, and could give herself a pat on the shoulder for a job well done.  


Copyright © 2018 by Elisabeth Hyde
Published by arrangement with Putnam, a division of Penguin Random House LLC 

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Interview: “Go Ask Fannie” author Elisabeth Hyde.


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