“The Girls in the Stilt House,” by Kelly Mustian

Kelly Mustian

Reviewed by Adele Annesi

Longing, aspiration, and murder converge in rural 1920s Mississippi to link and forever shape the lives of two diverse teenage girls in Kelly Mustian’s haunting debut novel, The Girls in the Stilt House.

Young runaway Ada Morgan vows never to return to the cruelty of her father’s house and her hardscrabble life in the Trace, the enigmatic Mississippi swamp where Ada’s past and future lie hidden, yet to be unearthed. Matilda Patterson, a sharecropper’s daughter from the far side of the marsh, knows even more intimately the lingering dangers of the past as she, too, longs for a new and better life.

After heartbreak and disappointment in Baton Rouge, Ada Morgan has no choice but to return to the life she swore to leave. As she labors to tidy her father’s unkempt house in the dismal Trace before his return, Ada hopes for change. But when Virgil Morgan arrives, he resets the old, ruthless standards. When he realizes the secret Ada is carrying, the only change that seems possible for anyone in the marsh is for the worse. As Virgil comes at Ada with deadly intent, Matilda appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to help.

At first, Ada is in awe of Matilda. But the independent and self-sufficient Mattie needs a place to stay and shelter from her own storms. Seemingly Ada’s salvation, Mattie has demons to excise as well. The individual and shared needs and sorrows of the girls’ past, present, and future could pit them against each other but unite them instead. Yet the bond is fragile, with each girl now complementing, now countering the other. Still, the two young women, one black, one white, need each other, for the very fact of their differences as the past they had hoped to escape confronts them with ominous new challenges they must face separately and together to survive.

The novel’s structure, alternating chapters of Ada’s and Mattie’s stories, nicely supports this underlying theme. Although Ada’s narrative is presented first and Mattie’s second, Mattie’s is foundational. Because of her own father’s risks for a better life, Mattie realizes the reality and threat of Virgil Morgan and what he represents even before Ada. And as Mattie’s best friend leaves the Trace for the kind of life and work Mattie longs for, she knows that if there is hope for her own future, she must maintain the bonds of friendship. Hereafter, Ada carries Mattie’s familial legacy where the Pattersons no longer can, and Ada realizes that she must confront and vanquish a man far more dangerous even than her father for the antiquated laws he represents that must be abolished.

While the novel’s first chapter lags a bit, the prologue creates a strong narrative pull, and as the story unfolds, the plot tightens and accelerates without sacrificing the development of the storyline or the characters. The distant third person omniscient perspective that alternates largely between Ada and Matilda underscores that only by living and working side by side can these diverse young women find new lives and a greater purpose. To that end, the past, present, and future are inextricably linked in the storyline but not in ways the characters or the readers necessarily understand in the moment. Still, the strands yield more than the twining of the individual threads, and the setting of the Trace is deftly woven in as a character of mood and mystery that both hides and reveals its secrets.

At the close of The Girls in the Stilt House, Ada moves on from the Trace with little longing for its darkness and secrets. But as Matilda leaves, she knows she will miss the severe splendor of the swamp, rooted with all the good things in her life. As murky memories and new troubles rise and converge, she will oppose them with the same ferocity as in the marsh. And when the sounds of a new city keep her from sleep, “eventually she won’t notice them at all.”

Readers and writers who enjoy the deep treatment of a critical theme by way of a profound story will appreciate the memorable, timely, and well-told The Girls in the Stilt House.

The work of author Kelly Mustian has appeared in various literary journals and magazines. She is a past recipient of a Blumenthal Writers Award and a Regional Artist Grant from the North Carolina Arts and Science Council.

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