So, Dirty Chick has a pretty fun and interesting premise: a woman from San Francisco moves her family to a small town in New Zealand called Purua, where they quickly surround themselves with a cluster of farm animals to raise. There are endless quirky discovery stories of the challenges of animal farming, growing cheeses, and staking out a life in general in Purua, many of which are pretty funny and engaging. I particularly liked her stories about the goats, who would often use her car as a makeshift playground, jumping onto the roof and sliding down the front windshield for fun.
There’s a human and serious element to Murphy’s memoir in that her son Silas has a learning disability. Murphy and her husband are constantly worrying about him and trying to figure out how to help him grow and thrive with other children. In fact, he’s part of the reason they move to slow-paced Purua in the first place — there’s a one-room schoolhouse there where he can get the personal attention that he needs.
Alright, so all that is fine and dandy, but my real issue with Murphy’s memoir is her language about people of color, and some of the implicit messages she’s sending that go completely unchecked. This showed up pretty early in the book, when she describes Richmond, where she was living in her sailboat before moving to New Zealand as “a sketchy part of the Bay Area just east of Marin County.” Woah. Pretty hard not to interpret “sketchy” here as not meaning “black and brown.”
In another place she writes, “Richmond was poor and shabby, plagued by gang violence.” It’s not that Richmond doesn’t have challenges with violence. It’s that the perception of not being safe is all she took away (or at least chose to share with us) from living there. There is so much more to Richmond’s community, and I wonder how much of the city she actually got to know living on her sailboat? How much did she ever step outside of her comfort circle of white friends to try and get to know residents of color?
Another example I had a really hard time with was her description of a friendly indigenous man who volunteers to come to her house and cook a sheep for a party she’s throwing. So, recap: this guy that her friends know and have recommended is coming over to her house all day to cook for her for free. And her first thoughts about him are, “Despite the nice eyes, this guy didn’t look safe. I made a mental note of where my kids were.” Later, she goes on to ask her friends why the kids don’t find him scary.
I was tempted to gloss over those unsavory bits in my review, but it’s really just inexcusable. Dirty Chick has some great parts, but it’s also got a serious white privilege problem that merits a much more thoughtful examination. I’d love to see more of her work as she matures as a writer and hopefully addresses some of those issues.
Note: I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.