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Missouri-Born Writer Explores Sisterhood, Survival And Political Divides In Her New Novel

Novelist Melissa Scholes Young grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, but now lives and teaches in Washington, D.C.
Colleen Dolak
Novelist Melissa Scholes Young grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and now lives and teaches in Washington, D.C.

Novelist Melissa Scholes Young's new book "The Hive" is about four sisters putting the pieces together after their father bankrupts them and then dies during the Great Recession.

The Fehler family isn’t quite a fictionalized version of the family Melissa Scholes Young grew up in. But like the Fehlers, her family ran a fourth-generation pest control business.

The fictional family that Scholes Young created lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri; her own family is from Hannibal, Missouri, 200 miles away.

Another difference is that novelist Scholes Young is an only daughter; she has two brothers. When it came to the extermination business, she found herself buried beneath files rather than pulling herself through crawl spaces as her brothers did.

In her novel, the family pest control business falls into the hands of four daughters — the "bug girls," as they call themselves.

“I was fascinated by the sisterhood story and what the bonds mean in a family business,” Scholes Young says from her home in Washington, D.C., where she teaches at American University. “I wrote the Fehler sisters as a sort of gift to myself. What would it look like if succession were sorted through women, if there weren’t a male heir?”

Her third novel, The Hive, is not only a story of four sisters and their mom overcoming the sudden death of the “head” of the family, but a story of class in a politically divided Midwestern town during the Great Recession.

Scholes Young says the sisters are a riff on the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. They range in age from adolescent through early 20s, with the practical eldest, the soul-searching artist, the knock-out, and the tomboy.

Also like the March sisters and their mom, the Fehlers are cash-strapped. In
the Fehlers’ case, that’s due to medical bankruptcy and their father’s poor management of the business just before his death.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect retelling at all, but part of what I like about Little Women is that it’s a matriarchal family structure as well,” Scholes Young says. “And what you see are people within the family structure pushing against the structure and pushing against societal expectations about how women should behave, how women can or cannot support themselves.”

The Fehler women spend months making sense of the dad’s wrecked finances, most of which he kept a secret even from his wife, Grace.

Grace’s reaction to that secrecy and uncertainty over the course of her marriage was to develop skills as a survivalist, a hobby also sometimes referred to as “prepping”— as in prepping for a natural disaster, apocalypse, or perhaps a civil war.

“Prepping and survivalism allowed me to interrogate these questions of power and identity, political structures, polarized communities, and also bonds within this business,” Scholes Young says.

She threw herself into researching this niche group of Americans, even attending a prepper camp in North Carolina. Scholes Young says she was surprised to find that women lead a lot of the groups, and that the entire enterprise had a bent toward conservationism, with discussions about solar energy and water preservation.

“It wasn’t what I expected, and I learned a great amount about what that line is between being prepared for something and then stepping over it, and that sort of dark side of individualism that, I fear, means you can dehumanize someone and therefore have a lot of hate toward them and blame toward them rather than compassion toward them,” Scholes Young says.

As the character Grace gradually finds her footing post-husband, she lets go of much of the paranoia that had been driving her need to pack “Bug Out Bags” for her daughters — bags they could grab at a moment’s notice if the walls literally fell around them.

Much of the story is about community — like finding strength working together and protecting the weakest. Scholes Young sees similar themes in work by her fellow Hannibal native, Mark Twain.

She includes many references to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which she thinks is often misread as a children’s story about playing hooky and fishing.

“I think Huckleberry Finn is a much darker book than we believe, and I think also that it’s a story with so many answers about freedom, what the price of freedom is, what you’re willing to do to be free, and what it means to actually have a liberated mind and that type of freedom,” Scholes Young says.

The Fehler sisters agree that the classic contains worlds of lessons on freedom and acts as a manual and “remedy for the ills of American life,” as Scholes Young writes toward the end of The Hive.

By the conclusion, each of the sisters and their mother has found a freedom they didn’t know at the beginning of the novel, though Scholes Young says she doesn’t always agree with the choices they made to get there.

She hopes that as the country and the Midwest in particular remain politically and ideologically divided, the novel will offer a safe framework for discussions about divisive topics.

That’s one of the charms of art, particularly stories. Scholes Young says she might not have regular access to people who live very differently from the way she does, but she can read about them.

She says, “I can be around their dinner table, and I can understand where they come from, right? And what they’ve inherited in their beliefs and their politics and their religion, but also what they struggle with.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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