I received this book free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Published by Ecco on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Southern Gothic/Country Noir
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With the heart, daring, and evocative atmosphere of Winter’s Bone and True Grit, and driven by the raw, whip-smart voice of Percy James, a blistering debut about a fearless sixteen-year old girl whose search for her missing mother leads to an unexpected discovery, and a life or 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 that she won’t survive the storm, Percy heads for Shelton Potter’s cabin, deep in the woods of Northern Michigan. A two-bit criminal, as incompetent as he his violent, Shelton has been smoking his own cook and grieving the death of his beloved Labrador, Old Bo.
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 is the beginning of 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.
Knowing she and the child cannot make it alone, Percy seeks help from Carletta’s ex, Portis Dale, who is the closest thing she’s ever had to a father. As the storm breaks and violence erupts, Percy will be forced to confront the haunting nature of her mother’s affliction and finds her own fate tied more and more inextricably to 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—and told in Percy’s unflinching style, 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.
Percy James is used to her mother disappearing, but something unspoken urges her to go off in search for her, despite the approaching blizzard. Shelton Potter is the maker and dealer of the local methamphetamine trade and his house is her first stop. She doesn’t find her mother but she does find a baby, laying in front of an open window as the snow begins to pile on top of her. Not knowing what to do but knowing she can’t leave the baby, she bundles her up and begins a tragic excursion through a blizzard in Northern Michigan.
This story seems like one that has been done time and time again, but it’s one that continues to work for me. Sweetgirl is being compared to Winter’s Bone, and it isn’t wrong, but there’s a wonderful touch of humor amidst the bleakness that also reminds me of Justified. Shelton Potter is a drug-addled character that sets off in the blizzard to find baby Jenna in a misguided attempt at being a hero. At one point he’s sucking on helium balloons and whiskey when he runs out of gas in his snowmobile in the middle of nowhere while pondering the complexities of our existence.
‘His head was throbbing. He wondered if he got worse headaches on account of how big his head was. It stood to reason that he would.’
Deep thoughts, right? He reminded me greatly of Dewey Crowe (Justified) for obvious reasons.
Percy James was a headstrong girl that was clearly used to taking care of herself. Despite moments where she appeared far too articulate for a sixteen-year-old girl, she was still written genuinely and made the sort of decisions one would expect from a teenager. Like instead of hiking into town to find help for the baby, she sets off deeper into the hills to enlist the help of her mother’s ex, Portis Dale, a kind but troubled man. Together, they traverse the snow-covered hills attempting to survive nature and survive Shelton Potter’s men. Portis Dale was a welcome addition and added another level of wittiness to the story.
“Am I being testy? I’m sorry, Percy. As your cruise director I deeply regret any momentary discomfort my tone may have caused you.”
Sweetgirl impressed me most with its striking descriptiveness and how vividly the scenery was brought to life. There may have been some slight issues in general, but it triumphed in terms of Percy’s personal evolution. For such a short novel, she manages to overcome adversity while learning how to know when to do the right thing and realizing her potential for a brighter future outside of the hills of Cutler County Michigan.
‘Mama loved me. I knew that she did. She loved me in a way not even Starr could, but it had been a long time, maybe as far back as that day at Spring Lake, that her love had not felt confused and undercut with sadness. This had always been the torment of Mama’s love and it remained so now – it was both the sun that had borne me and the endless orbit I tread around its burning.’