Do It Yourself gal Stella Nichols, who lived a tough life by any standards, is one of the most staggeringly promiscuous people ever. How promiscuous? She drove to bars in her trusty pickup truck “”TP 4” with a mattress in the back. That’s how promiscuous. Being a bar fly with her own rolling motel wasn’t enough to keep Stella amused. She was a winner at Tri-Chem design, which seems to have been the tasteful way to tart up one’s clothes before the invention of the Bedazzler. She designed her own pottery. She even managed to fit a few fish tanks into her single-wide trailer. Oh, and she picked up a few facts about how to kill with natural herbs and cyanide. One of the challenges of Stella’s story is that while her crime is awful, you can’t help admiring her ability to fit so much into a day.
Stella isn’t the only epic barfly in this story. Her whole family is man-crazy. I tried adding up the number of marriages the Stephenson “girls” and Grandma Cora Lee managed to rack up and I stopped at 30. That’s thirty marriages for 5 women. Just the marriages. When Stella’s even trashier daughter Cindy complains about Stella’s boozing and bed-hopping a few weeks after her husband’s death saying “I have a reputation myself to uphold in the town” one wonders if Cindy was merely vexed at having competition for the title of town tramp. This example of family love pales in comparison to warm welcome Stella’s sister Georgia extends to her daughter Wilma’s baby: “I hope that bitch you’re holding …” Wilma responds to this heartwarming expression of maternal love with a right hook and some hair pulling. The female bonding in this clan is something else.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be simply depressing. Fortunately we have Gregg Olsen on the case and no one is better at depicting the underclass of America. He’s neither preachy nor faux-sympathetic. The more of his work I read the more convinced I am that Gregg Olsen is a brilliant combination of Darcy O’Brien (another true crime great) and filmmaker John Waters in his ability to show us what we’d prefer to avoid while showing us a little of ourselves in the process. Gregg Olsen gives Stella Maudine and the rest of the Stephenson girls what they would probably most want: their dignity. He shows them at their trashy worst but always shows their strength. Of course, that strength can take the form of dumping your kids, turning your mom into the FBI or poisoning your husband but then life’s not for wimps.