"The Girls In the Stilt House" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
This debut novel by Kelly Mustian kept me reading long into several nights. Set in 1923 in the swamps of Louisiana, it’s the story of two young women who survive hardships they can endure only through their wits and banding together in the most difficult of times.
The novel opens with 16-year-old Ada returning from Baton Rouge where she has spent a year with a carnival worker. He was kind to her until he decided to move on without her. Ada, naive but resigned, believes she has no other choice but to return to the decrepit swamp house on stilts to her deranged, loathsome father Virgil, a bootlegger and vicious animal trapper. Ada’s sweet mother died years earlier in horrific circumstances.
Ada encounters Matilda, a girl near her age, when Matilda saves Ada’s life, even as Matilda is in the swamp to exact her own revenge. Matilda is the daughter of a sharecropper; her own life has been recently and irrevocably changed through the personal and cruel manipulation of a landowner and the abusive actions of Virgil.
Following the bizarre disappearance of Virgil, the young women realize they will not survive without the other, and by necessity form a bond, living together in the stilt house. What they know about murders, bootleggers, thefts and deception in the area put their lives in constant jeopardy.
Resilience is a recurring theme of the book, and a quality both girls exemplify. Matilda never abandons her plans to move north; she dreams of writing and an education. Ada rediscovers a love for an abandoned skill her mother once taught her. She prays this talent will bring her a life of some comfort and peace.
“The Girls In the Stilt House” provides a historical perspective of the time of bootleggers and sharecroppers in the South. The author writes convincingly of the juxtaposition between life lived in the master house and the sharecroppers’ shacks, the contempt of the wealthy towards the poor, and the class and racial divide between even the merely poor and the desperately poor.
The truth that humans survive and find comfort when they take care of each other permeates this fine novel. Heartbreak fills the pages, but so do hope, trust and love.
“The Girls In the Stilt House” reminded me of Delia Owen’s 2018 book, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” but I believe the descriptive richness of characters and place is even more memorable. I anticipate this book receiving numerous award nominations in 2021.