I could see the baby was shrieking, but its cries were buried by the wind. The snow blew in sideways, edged across the floor and dusted the baby’s cheeks with frost. The baby’s eyes darted in a side-to-side panic as it reached up with trembling hands and searched for something to grasp.
I ran toward it.
16 year old Percy James had gone looking for her missing mother, yet again, and both hoped and feared she might find her at the home of Shelton Potter, local source for substances of the illegal sort. Shelton was not exactly the brightest light wherever he happened to be. And he had a propensity to violence. Even did time for hospitalizing a fellow bar patron who committed the social faux pas of calling him “jughead.” Shelton was the tiniest bit sensitive about the size of his admittedly triple-X cranium. Shelton and his gf were on the far side of conscious, so Percy had a look about. Mom was not to be found, but the thought of that baby freezing to death while druggies dozed was too much, so Percy did the right thing, and snatched the infant from the jaws of an icy death. Yeah, I guess she could have, you know, shut the window. But the dead, decaying dog in the house and the state of its adult inhabitants made moving the child to a safe location a no-brainer. And so begins our tale.You might want to dress warmly when you settle in to read Sweet Girl. A sweater at least. Make sure the windows are closed tight, and bring out a throw to toss over your feet and legs. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a cup with steaming liquid in it near at hand, enhanced or not.
It was the burning kind of cold. A tear had opened in my lip and I put my tongue to it and tasted the salty, pooling blood. There was already a throb and tingle in my toes and the air torched my lungs just to breathe it. I looked back after a minute and could not see the pinewoods or tell the falling snow in the fields from what was wind-thrown.
Travis Milhauser should know. He grew up there, in Petoskey, a booming metropolis of about 6,000 souls, up about where the fingernail of your ring-finger might be if it were inside the Michigan mitten, and hadn’t gone black and fallen off. He does not live there any longer, but it is damned clear that he remembers how it feels. His ability to portray and sustain the feeling of bloody-fracking-freezing is one of the strengths of Sweet Girl. He is equally adept at communicating a feeling of isolation. Not only are the places where his characters live often at the fringes of what passes for civilization, the characters themselves contend with the remoteness of their existence. You might want to encourage a loved one to sit and read with you, or invite a pet to hang out by your side or on your lap for a bit.
I would leave out the back and head straight for Portis’s place. My truck was just as far away from the farmhouse as the cabin, and all of it uphill. If Shelton or the girl bothered to notice the baby was gone they’d fire up the sleds and the truck and head right for the road I’d come in on. No, the best thing was to go and get Portis. Have him drive us to the hospital in his Dakota.
Another powerful element inSweet Girl Mulhauser’s portrayal of the relationship between Percy and the man to whom she turns for help. If the name Portis rings a bell, it is worth recalling that it was author Charles Portis who wrote a great American novel called True Grit. Young Percy James, like Mattie Ross before her, turns to an older, somewhat dodgy, but trustworthy man to help her with her situation. Portis Dale is the closest thing she has to a father, he having been a much loved one-time cohabitant with her mother for several years. He has had issues with substances himself, mostly of the brown liquid variety, and is not exactly someone you would describe as squeaky clean. But their bond is strong. And while Rooster Cogburn’s motivations may have been at least monetary before developing into something else, this Portis has no financial skin in the game. The conversation between the two crackles, as Percy, while only 16, is a hard 16, having had to cope with her meth-head mother for years and does not shy away from going head-to-head with her champion.
Percy has seen maybe too much of the cold underside of life for someone her age. She is a strong female character, no one’s notion of a flighty teen, pining after some boy. She has her vulnerabilities but has a solid core that guides her through. It is very easy to see in Percy an echo of another working class teen facing dire circumstances, 17-year-old Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone. Percy is as well-realized.
Of course getting baby Jenna to safety would be difficult enough, given the impending blizzard. But when Shelton comes to and finds the baby gone, he calls in his troops to beat the bushes. Uh-oh
Another strength in Sweet Girl is the portrayal of the culture, or at least a part of it, in the land of the great water. With industry having mostly packed up, the folks left behind have to make do somehow, and tending to the better-off sorts who have been buying up the shorefront for summer vacations is not quite enough. A lively drug trade involves not only the locals, but new Michiganders, from south of the Rio Grande. Who are all these people and how do they live? You get a sense.
While it would have been no trick to have made the thugs cartoonish (ok, a couple of them are, and there a few of comedic moments that might fuel an occasional outburst of “what a schmuck!”), Shelton, while intellectually and morally challenged, is shown to have a third dimension. You could even feel sorry for him at times. As for Percy’s mama, where the hell is she? Can Percy save her if she finds her? Is she worth saving? What does the future hold for Percy? Does she even have a future? Can Percy even save herself?
I had few gripes in reading this book. But one thing that irked was that a significant event that occurs between Portis and one of his thugs is reported to Percy by Portis after the fact. It really should have been shown on stage instead of off. I suppose there are some who will see the connections between this book, True Grit and Winter’s Bone and bemoan any similarities. I did not feel that way. Every tale that pairs a woman-child with a much older man is not the same story. The richness of the characterizations makes this one sing. The accomplished creation of the north Michigan environment as a character as important as Percy or Portis, lends heft to the work.
While the horrors of the world of drug abuse are quite chilling, and while the world in which this battle plays out is numbingly cold, and darkly isolated, Sweet Girl is an incredibly warm read, one that appreciates and communicates both innocence and courage. You will love Percy and Portis and feel engaged in their battles with dark forces, natural and hominid. How sweet it is.
Review posted – 11/13/2015
Publication Date – 2/2/2016