Now that the seasons have finally started to change, I want to take a moment to take you back. Back when the wind was so cold your teeth began to hurt. Back when the heat from your body started to feel like a fever if you’d been out for too long. Back when the cold could make you pray to God that the el train would just arrive, even if you don’t quite believe in God.
In short, back to winter.
Travis Mulhauser’s debut novel, Sweetgirl, honors winter like a Deity, requiring both devotion and sacrifice. It stands as an omnipotent silent narrator who directs action by force, and give few allowances. I came away from this novel blistered from the Cutler County weather. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how great this book is.
Sweetgirl starts off slow, like a pendulum swinging into action. We meet 16 year old Percy, an in-again, out-again High School Student who is currently out-again and looking for her mother, Carletta. She’s heard around town that Carletta’s “been throwing down with Shelton Potter.” Turns out Potter’s the ne’er do well nephew of the County’s foremost Weed Dealer, a profession which seems practically noble compared to the rest of the town. Shelton doles out Meth to the County’s dedicated users, one of which Carletta has been for the past few years.
With this information, Percy sets off on the verge of a blizzard to see if she can’t reclaim her husk of a mother. Turns out, her mother is not in the farm house. Instead, Percy finds the drugged bodies of Shelton and a woman, the rotting corpse of an old dog, and a shrieking, freezing baby. Within that moment, Percy is faced with the decision to continue to search for her mother, or become the mother this child never had the chance to search for.
Mulhauser does a wonderful job at keeping this novel up tempo… Once I had finished the first chapter, I pretty much could not put it down. It’s part struggle against the wilderness and part exposition of the dark underbelly in rural America (is it weird I felt a little Midwest pride that this was set in Michigan and not Appalachia? Yes? Okay), with each part perfectly balancing it’s opponent.
The novel is told in gently oscillating narration, with none of the harsh breaks I’ve found in so much contemporary fiction recently. We’re mostly following Percy on her trek through the woods and away from Potter, with a few brief windows into Potter’s tumultuous day and drug habits. The whole thing moves beautifully; Mulhauser seems far more accomplished than I’d assume for a debut author.
But, as I often find, one of the best parts of this novel is the rich characterizations of these hard up townies. Percy, Portis Dale, even Shelton Potter speak in a believable dialect and their presence reverberates throughout the story. Still, Mulhauser’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to prioritize the pulsing plot, letting the characters be felled or buoyed by that transcending force. You end up caring so much for each character and you root for them against the cruelness of Mother Nature, the harsh lighting of the writer’s hand… whatever may come.
I’ve heard this novel talked about as a funny winter’s bone–less tragedy and more satire. And that’s true, it IS funny. But what I took away wasn’t the jokes or wry remarks. It was the ease with which each character found his or her voice and used it. Seems easy, but trust me when I say most of the books I read can barely convince their characters to walk into the room.
At just over 250 pages, this novel sparkles in it’s brevity. So while this might not be what you have in mind for a great summer read, it might be just what the doctor ordered for a chilly spring. Mulhauser definitely deserves a good, long second look.