Wild Girls, by Mary Stewart Atwell

Reviewed by Patricia O’Sullivan.

Swan River, nestled in the Appalachian valley, is known for its poverty, its exclusive all-girl academy, and its wild girls who occasionally go on murderous rampages. Having grown up in Swan River, Kate Riordan has seen firsthand what the defunct mill town does to people. She calls the inhabitants deadnecks. “It’s somebody who’s half-hippie and half-redneck…Like their parents used to follow the Grateful Dead, but then they bought land and decided to be squash farmers or whatever,” she explains to her first real friend made at Swan River Academy for Girls, Willow Becker.

Kate does not want to get stuck in Swan River like her mother and her sister and so many of her acquaintances. Attending Swan River Academy is a first step away from becoming a deadneck. But attending the academy also brings Kate closer to her other fear, turning into a wild girl.

The wild girls were reported to be able to fly. It was said that though their preferred weapon was fire, they could kill in any way they chose; some had strangled or drowned their victims, or bitten and torn their skin until they bled to death. Since people rarely saw a wild girl and survived, it wasn’t exactly clear what they looked like, and no one knew what triggered the change of an ordinary teenager into one of these fierce creatures. There was no clear cause, no toxic sludge in the drinking water. It was just something about our town – the high wooded ridges, the valleys where abandoned farms slowly decayed to the earth. There was a spirit here, dark and uncontainable, and once it got into you it wouldn’t let go.

Kate has few friends at Swan River Academy. She is only able to attend because her mother works as a secretary for the academy’s eccentric Dr. Bell, an expert on myths and monsters in literature. And while Kate befriends Willow, theirs is an uneasy relationship. Willow’s parents expect her to cultivate better connections than a poor townie. Kate is also drawn to two local boys who work in the academy’s kitchens, Mason Lemmons and Clancy Harp. But when Willow decides to date Mason, Kate sees the writing on the wall. Mason’s sister, Crystal, was a wild girl and his mother is known as the town witch. Mason himself is a bit wild when Clancy is not around to keep him grounded. As the signs become more obvious that the wild girls are rising, Kate must decide where her loyalties lie and how to protect the people she loves from the wild girls.

Wild Girls is an interesting take on the ‘girl fear’ genre (a phrase coined by Lee Thomas to capture the fear patriarchal society has of the power of adolescent girls), which could include stories about the Salem Witch Trials, the 1980s film Heathers, and the more recent ‘mean girls’ phenomenon in both novels and film. What makes Wild Girls different is its paranormal element associated not with the boarding school, but with the impoverished town below. Wild girls are generally poor and desperate. They’ve experienced trauma. Their rage does not play into a larger social drama of upward mobility or unrequited love. They simply want to, in Kate’s words, “burn it all down” in an act of frenzy.

The unpredictable nature of the wild girls is what makes them so frightening and what gives the story its appeal. But don’t expect psychological insight on female adolescent empowerment or sociological lessons about class conflict from Wild Girls. This is a haunting Appalachian folk tale, not a social commentary.

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