Monday, February 1, 2016

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser

Sweetgirl is a gritty, gripping, wry winner of a first novel told in the vibrant, authentic voice of sixteen-year-old Percy James, a high-school dropout living in fictional Cutler County which many will recognize as the area surrounding Petoskey, the northern Michigan town Hemingway made famous. Fast forward 100 years and the storied hills shelter meth labs and burnouts alongside fancy resorts and multimillionaires. When Percy can’t find Carletta, her addict mother, she begins searching the outlying woods where Shelton Potter, her mother’s dealer lives. A fast approaching blizzard spurs Percy to find Carletta quickly.

“The north hills were only five minutes from town, but they might as well have been a hundred miles from those big houses along the bay. The second you turned into the hills it was like somebody flipped a switch. The high trees swallowed the stars and the city lights and there were times if felt like you were dropping. There were spots in the hills where you could see out, clearings that let in some light, but the drive up felt like shooting straight down a mine shaft.”  

When Percy reaches the dealer’s hidden farmhouse, Carletta isn’t there; instead Percy discovers Shelton and his girlfriend passed out in the living room, a long-dead dog lying stiff in an upstairs room, and down the hall as she opened the other door:
“There was a flood of cold through an open window along the side wall, and there was snow piling on the sill and the carpet. A mattress lay cockeyed on the floor and between the mattress and a radiator was a bassinet. Inside the bassinet was a baby. . .  I could see the baby was shrieking, but its cries were buried by the wind. The snow blew in sideways, edged across the floor, and dusted the baby’s cheeks with frost. The baby’s eyes darted in a side-to-side panic as it reached up with trembling hands and searched for something to grasp.”

The baby’s pajamas were cold and wet and she “reeked of shit and the soured tang of spit-up.”  On the side of the bassinet, Percy read the words BABY JENNA written in marker. Percy picked Jenna up and she wrapped her hand around Percy’s finger. “I will tell you it stopped my heart cold when I felt her clutch. I looked down at her and knew I would not be leaving her in that house.”  Percy grabbed a backpack containing Jenna’s clothing, diapers and formula, unzipped her hoodie, slipped the baby inside, and walked into the woods. The snow kept falling and Percy stumbled through the drifts in search of a cabin she knew was fairly close thus beginning her odyssey to save the baby and escape Shelton and his gang of miscreants.

Shelton is supposed to be in charge of his uncle's distribution network, a literal gang that can’t shoot straight, while he's away, but the gang members don't respect him and while he admires himself in his snowmobile suit and does a few balloons of nitrous oxide before searching for the missing baby, he forgets to fill his snowmobile with gas and "in his brief tenure had already managed to lose a baby and strand himself in the woods." His lack of success forces him to enlist others in an all-out search for the baby.

With help from her mother’s former boyfriend, kind-hearted alcoholic Portis Dale, Percy and Jenna begin their escape. Percy, who her mother always called “Sweetgirl” must reach deep inside herself to find strength and power while holding on to the sweetness that’s at her core in this coming-of-age gem.  Meanwhile minor characters dot the landscape with their quirky personalities and bone dry humor as Percy plots her way toward redemption.

Percy is her own unique self, but her independence and persistence may remind readers of Margo Crane in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s exquisite Once Upon a River. Both novels also share the nuanced view of a people and the geography that shapes them in northern rural areas where hope is rarely available in the aisles of the local party store.

Summing it Up: Fargo meets Breaking Bad with a plucky teen heroine in a gritty winter setting that should keep you reading all night. Only a writer like Travis Mulhauser who grew up in the area could capture both the unforgiving weather and the lack of opportunities once the tourists go home that often result in desperate criminal activity. Thankfully Mulhauser also has the skill and heart to deliver a story with an engaging “sweetgirl” whose mission will keep readers attention throughout this page turner.

On a personal note: I live in the area depicted in the novel in the summer and fall and have spent many a week snowed in when visiting in the winter. This novel perfectly captures the area and many of the diverse people who call it home. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: February 2, 2016
Author Appearances: If you’re anywhere near North Carolina or Michigan, Mulhauser will be appearing in bookstores throughout both states in February.

What Others are Saying:
Booklist: Teens will enjoy this suspenseful, dark-edged story of a strong-willed young woman whose efforts to do good put her life in jeopardy. —Michael Cart

Charlotte Observer: Here’s one due in February that’s so good that I read a few paragraphs aloud to my podiatrist as he removed a toenail. Honest. It’s “Sweetgirl,” by Travis Mulhauser of Durham. Though meth and drugs infest almost every page, this debut novel is chillingly lyrical and filled with a love so raw and fierce it takes your breath. A thumb’s up blurb from our own Ron Rash.  — Dannye Romine Powell

“I am a fan of Ron Rash, TC Boyle, and Winter’s Bone is one of my favorite books so this was right up my alley.  So I read Sweetgirl in a day and connected immediately with Percy and her desperation to care for little Jenna.  All the characters in this book became real for me and though they were involved in a despicable lifestyle, Mulhauser expressed the motivations of their hearts.  I will be recommending this book upon its release!”   — Tina Smith, Joseph Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY