Review: Sweetgirl – Travis Mulhauser

Darlings and dear readers, I gotta confess that May has been what I am now referring to as the mediocre month of blogging – I just haven’t been reviewing or reading as much as I would have liked, partly due to a cold that knocked me flat, and a new job that I recently started which has left me trying to readjust to working life. Anyways, I hope to get back into a regular blogging/reading schedule as my energy levels adjust, but just an explanation for why I’ve been rather scarce of late!

sweetgirlA blistering debut driven by the raw, whip-smart voice of Percy James, a fearless sixteen-year-old girl whose search for her missing mother leads to an unexpected discovery and a life-and-death struggle in the harsh frozen landscape of the upper Midwest

As a blizzard bears down, Percy James sets off to find her troubled mother, Carletta. For years, Percy has had to take care of herself and Mama—a woman who’s been unraveling for as long as her daughter can remember. Fearing Carletta is strung out on meth and won’t survive the storm, Percy heads for Shelton Potter’s cabin, deep in the woods of northern Michigan.

But when Percy arrives, there is no sign of Carletta. Searching the house, she finds Shelton and his girlfriend drugged into oblivion—and a crying baby girl left alone in a freezing room upstairs. From the moment the baby wraps a tiny hand around her finger, Percy knows she must save her—a split-second decision that commences a dangerous odyssey in which she must battle the elements and evade Shelton and a small band of desperate criminals hell-bent on getting that baby back. 

As the storm breaks and violence erupts, Percy will be forced to confront the haunting nature of her mother’s affliction, and come to find her own fate tied more and more inextricably to that of the baby she is determined to save. 

Filled with the sweeping sense of cultural and geographic isolation of its setting—the hills of fictional Cutler County in northern Michigan—Sweetgirl is an affecting exploration of courage, sacrifice, and the ties that bind, a taut and darkly humorous tour de force that is horrifying, tender, and hopeful.

Rating: 4/5

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “You really are a lunatic.”
“And just think,” he said. “I’m the one you came to for help.”

Sweetgirl is overall a tale of resilience, of overcoming more than just the elements, but one’s personal circumstances as well. 16-year-old Percy discovers a baby in a drug house while searching for her rather feckless mother, who has disappeared again on what is presumably another drug-binge. The baby’s mother is passed out downstairs, along with Shelton Potter, the local meth maker/dealer with unpredictable violent tendencies who is best avoided.Percy rescues the baby, who has been left by an open window in the middle a furious blizzard, with the aim of getting her to a hospital and then social services. And thus begins a tale of girl-versus-nature, accompanied by the additional threats of the local goons in search of finding the kid.

I had never considered myself the adventurous type, and this entire ordeal had only confirmed that fact. You will not find me in any of those mud races, or leaping from a perfectly good aiplane to prove some vague point about the human spirit. I do not relish risk or seek thrills and cannot understand people who pay their good money to endanger and punish themselves. You got to have it made to even think like that, to walk around feeling like your life needs a few more challenges thrown in.

I mean, why run through some mud you put there on purpose when you could come to Cutler and rescue a baby from the drug-ravaged farmhouse of a fucking lunatic?

While the premise of the novel is fairly dark – it’s a hopeless part of town riddled with drugs, alcohol, unemployment, violence and all the kind of social problems that go along with these issues, there is a dark sense of humour pervading the novel, at least initially. Percy is fairly deadpan and matter-of-fact in her delivery, and the interactions with Portis, the closest thing to a father figure she has and the person who helps her on her quest to save the baby, are a wry, dry joy to behold.

“I don’t like it,” I said. “It makes me nervous.”
“Well,” he said. “You go right on bring nervous and not liking it. Let me know if it changes anything.”

The accompanying cast of characters are certainly a colourful bunch. The aforementioned Portis is an acerbic figure, an alcoholic with a particular moral code and a soft spot for Percy. Shelton, who takes on the role of villain, is shown to be extremely child-like in his thoughts and reasoning, partially a result of the drugs and partially a result of his upbringing, one assumes. Carletta, Percy’s mother, is a fairly absent, useless parent when she’s entangled in drugs, but Percy is obligated by her love for her.

It is a terrible thing to see a man burn down in front of you, but you would be surprised by the things you can walk through when it is necessary to keep walking.

It’s a story about the small bits of good in the midst of a terrible situation. It’s a story of sheer fortitude and determination that this one thing will go right; this one baby will escape to a better life. It’s a story with some incredibly sad and harrowing moments, but which ultimately ends with a sense of hope for both Percy and the girl that she helps to save. Well-written, with occasional dark humour and profound moments of utter hopelessness which somehow still work to create an entertaining novel.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Sweetgirl – Travis Mulhauser

  1. This sounds like such a horrible, but also hopeful novel. With that kind of premise, it would have to have a strong message of hope for me to endure, and apparently it does. I’ll have to prepare for my heart to be broken before it can be fixed, but I will read it.

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  2. Interesting premise indeed, if rather grim. I’ve been trying to stay away from grim stories due to the weather, which has been supplying us with all the grimness we could ever bear and then some… :\ Still, I’ll probably end up reading this one – just ’cause of the premise. How’s the new job working out for you then? 🙂

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