The Gang Girls
Carson Bingham | Monarch Books | 1963 | 144 pages
Freshly arrived on the mean streets of Brooklyn from a small town in Ohio, Valerie Meers works as a waitress in a greasy neighborhood diner and shares a tiny apartment with her mother. Mums, aka “Charlotte the Harlot”, is a blowsy drunk who brings strange men home to bed to make a few dollars towards rent. Charlotte’s high-society pretensions back home were shattered after her husband’s infidelities were revealed, and her fantasy of a carefully planned marriage for her daughter destroyed when a local boy raped Val—ruining her reputation. But rather than offering a new start, Val finds the big city lonely and unfriendly.
Out for a walk alone after dark, Val is jumped by a group of sweater-wearing girls (“their hips thrust out in arrogant sexuality, their breasts bursting like ripe melons”), who beat and kick her until she blacks out. Troy Brady, the blue-eyed leader of the neighborhood street gang The Panthers, rescues her, and arranges for her initiation into The Panther Debs, the gang’s group of girls. Although conflicted about joining, Val ultimately is swayed by Troy’s words, “You’re in or you’re out. Who wants to be out?”
Val passes part one of the initiation, running a gauntlet of twenty leather-belt-swinging girl gang members, who lash at her bared flesh as she passes. Part two requires “going all the way” with one of the Panther boys, and Troy Brady nominates himself for the role. However, his decision does not go over well with Ada McKey, his “Queen” and lisping leader of the Panther Debs. Out on the streets afterwards, Ada and Pearl Hansen, her cross-eyed lieutenant, warn Val to never return to the Debs and to stay away from Troy. Although Troy seemingly settles the matter (“You’re my gash, Val, and nobody says not!”), Val has made powerful enemies within the gang.
The conflict between Val and her rival girl gang members drives the The Gang Girls, playing out as part exploitation and part cautionary tale. As the Panthers and their Debs steal cars, rob liquor stores, and set up rumbles with their rival gang (the Yellowdogs), Val becomes a voice of conscience, waffling between finking on them to a local gang counselor and embracing their offered sense of a perceived community. Val is often frustratingly naïve (even for small-town Ohio) as to the outcome of her choices—everyone in the gang seems to be obviously against her from the beginning.
The death of the Panther’s second-in-command, the pimply-faced Dino Parelli, in the final rumble with the Yellowdogs, allows for some symbolic musings on gang violence. “As they all watched, Dino’s right hand, still grasping the switch-blade, uncurled and the blade dropped to the sidewalk, where for an instant after it fell, it caught the glint of the brilliance of the squad car’s light.”
Peanut Stacy (head shaped like a peanut) survives.