The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian, Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark. 2021 $16.99 384 pages
The Girls in the Stilt House is a debut historical novel set along the Natchez trace in 1920s Mississippi. It follows the path of one poor white Bayou girl named Ada and her black counterpart Matilda who both suffer horrific acts of violence in their teen years that serve to dissolve family ties and leave lasting scars.
Because of a midnight trek together to bury the dead body of one of their tormenters, the two teens are permanently entwined in a risky secret that leaves them vulnerable in the Jim Crow South world of share croppers, tenant farmers, and swamp dwellers living a hardscrabble existence on the margins of society.
Reminiscent of recent bestseller, Where the Crawdads Sing, Mustian’s novel is likewise a crime thriller that involves bootleg whiskey, acts of racial violence, and multiple murders. Young Ada, the isolated daughter of a drunken and abusive itinerate trapper, finds herself pregnant and desperate at the age of sixteen and reliant on Matilda, a neighbor previously unknown to her, who is herself a violence victim and scarcely older than Ada.
Matilda is hiding out from a local crime figure who feels safe in the knowledge of Matilda’s presumed death in an accident. While lying low, she helps Ada make a living in the ramshackle stilt house in the marshes, and arranges an elderly midwife friend to deliver Ada’s baby. In turn, Matilda names the newborn little girl Annis after Matilda’s recently deceased baby sister who died in a horrific house fire. Both teens want to quickly better their lives. Ada dreams of a stable life for her baby and Matilda wants a new start in the black diaspora from the Deep South.
The Girls in the Stilt House is a gripping read that starts strong with the two perseverant orphan girls Ada and Matilda. However, the pacing falters slightly at the end as the tale of revenge hinges on somewhat improbable circumstance of multiple setbacks accompanied by a happenstance meeting in a new setting that triggers a chain of murder attempts aimed at eliminating witnesses.
Author Kelly Mustian grew up in Natchez, Mississippi and currently lives in the foothills of North Carolina. She’s a first novelist who has written short fiction and articles in literary journals.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Services Librarian for the Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at email@example.com.