Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser

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Reviewed by Annabel

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell has long been one of my favourite novels. Woodrell’s books which are mostly set in the Missouri Ozarks tend to feature poor folk living in adverse conditions and he coined the term ‘country noir’ to describe his stories. Last year I read another shocking and brilliant novel, Young Gods by Katherine Faw Morris which features a young protagonist who takes on her druggy trailer-trash pimp of a father. I look out for books like these, and wasn’t going to let Sweetgirl pass me by. Comparisons are perhaps inevitable, but if you crossed the grimness and country noir of Winter’s Bone with the black humour and gore of the Coen brothers’ Fargo you’d get close to the feel of Sweetgirl.

Sweetgirl’s story is set in the sparsely populated wintery wilds of Michigan, in an imaginary county near the author’s hometown of Petoskey. Sixteen-year-old Percy, one of two ‘Sweetgirls’ in this novel, goes in search of her drugged up Mama, who has been missing for nine days, but has been seen up at Shelton Potter’s place.

I wished I could stop at Portis Dale’s. Portis was the closest thing I had to a father and he had a cabin not a half mile from Shelton’s. I’d have much preferred to take him to the farmhouse with me, and would have begged him gladly if I thought there was half a chance he would.

The problem was, Portis quit chasing Carletta years ago and was liable to bind me to a chair for the duration of the winter if I so much as made a whisper about Shelton Potter’s. I could hear him clear as day.

“That farmhouse ain’t no place for a girl,” he would say. “No place for you.”

Portis might have been right but I drove on anyway.

Potter is a meth addict and local dealer, so Percy knows better than to go barging in to find Carletta. The roads and tracks are already all but snowed in so she parks up and goes the last mile on to the house on foot. She doesn’t find Carletta though. She does discover Shelton and Kayla totally comatose on meth, the corpse of a rotting dog and an abandoned baby who needs medical attention.

Crisis is a constant when you’re a daughter of Carletta James, which prevented me from outright panic at the sight of an abandoned infant in the farmhouse.

She takes the baby, Jenna it says on her bassinet, and sets out to get help; Portis will get them to the hospital. No sooner do they get underway than the blizzard hits and Portis accidentally drives off the road. It becomes a race against time for Percy with the baby, as Jenna’s father soon comes to and he and his bounty-hunting friends set off after them. The good thing is that Percy and Portis are used to the weather and Portis knows all the tracks and hiding places.

Like Woodrell’s heroine, Ree, in Winter’s Bone, Percy has great resilience and a drive to improve her lot, you really care for her. In Portis, she has a true surrogate father figure, a decent but handy man, although he is rather fond of the bottle. I couldn’t help wondering if Portis was named for the author of True Grit, Charles Portis. The relationship between Percy and Portis certainly rings bells of that between Rooster Cogburn and young Mattie Ross.

You want the pair to succeed and get baby Jenna to safety, but of course, everything is against them – especially the weather, but also the baby’s worsening condition and dwindling supplies, not to mention the posse on their sleds. You can forgive Percy for forgetting Carletta and focusing on the baby.

Whereas Winter’s Bone is bleak and serious all the way through, Sweetgirl, as I alluded to above, has some moments of black humour which in turn lead to some rather grim scenes. With its engaging young protagonist, Sweetgirl is an assured debut novel that I enjoyed very much.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Travis Mulhauser, Sweetgirl (4th Estate, 2016). 9780008142353, 240 pp., hardback.

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