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Friday, November 19, 2021

Historical Southern Novel Is Absorbing, Atmospheric, and Assured

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Until 16-year-old Ada Morgan ran away with her boyfriend, she had never known true freedom. The last thing she wants to do now is return home to the squalor of her stilt house on the swamp. She knows her father—a coarse and cruel trapper—will be thrilled to have her back. Not only will he have someone to wait on him again, but he will also delight in punishing her for leaving him. If she had any other option, she would never return to him. With nowhere else to go, she has no choice but to go back to Mississippi, back to the Trace, back to her father. 

Matilda Patterson is also anxious to leave her home on the Natchez Trace. The Black teen is the daughter of poor sharecroppers who eke out a meager living in a place that will never allow them to get ahead. With local bootleggers making things even more difficult for the family, Matilda's ready to take her secrets and run. A more promising future awaits her in the north; she just has to make it there.

When their lives converge one fateful night, Ada and Matilda are shocked to find themselves partners in crime. Literally. Their tenuous bond is the only thing keeping both of them safe, but it's a tenuous sisterhood that could break at any moment. As their linked past becomes more apparent, the two begin to realize just how much danger they're really in. When more trouble comes calling, it's up to them to protect themselves and each other against deadly odds.

It's no secret that I love me an absorbing historical story, the more atmospheric the better. The Girls in the Stilt House, a debut novel by Kelly Mustian, ticks all these boxes. Its vivid, visceral setting is a character in its own right, exhibiting all the beauty, danger, and contradiction inherent in every human. As untamed as the swampland surrounding them, our heroines are sympathetic because of their impoverished, hardscrabble lives. What makes them admirable is the fiery grit that burns deep inside them, giving them strength, courage, and the will to keep fighting. Plot-wise, this is a slow-burning tale. While this device takes a little patience, it also ensures that by the time the story's action really amps up, the reader cares deeply about what's going to happen and to whom. Although it's not a happy, all-tied-up-with-a-bow story, The Girls in the Stilt House is compelling, moving, and beautifully written. I loved this assured debut.

(Readalikes: The Girls in the Stilt House reminds me a bit of  Emily Carpenter's novels. I've also seen it compared to Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and If the Creek Don't Rise by Leah Weiss.)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love: I received an e-ARC of The Girls in the Stilt House from the generous folks at Sourcebooks via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

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