Sweetgirl: A Novel

  • By Travis Mulhauser
  • HarperCollins
  • 241 pp.

A flawed but captivating tale of bravery and loss set in a fictional Michigan town.

When you review books, every once in a while you come across a new writer with great promise not yet fulfilled. For me, Travis Mulhauser is such a writer.

Sweetgirl, despite miscalculations here and there, takes the reader by the heart and throat and never lets go. The heroine is a cigarette-smoking, foulmouthed teenager who has the courage of a warrior and toughness of a Spartan. In the end, she proves herself generous and demonstrates her capacity for love by letting a child go to parents who can care for her.

The “sweetgirl” of the novel is actually two people. One is Jenna, a baby that the protagonist, Percy James, finds and rescues; the other is Percy herself. We learn toward the end of the book that Carletta, Percy’s alcoholic and drug-addicted mother, called Percy “sweetgirl” when she was a small child. Percy is now 16, a rugged high-school dropout who earns money refinishing furniture in a local store to support herself and her mother. When Carletta goes missing in the middle of a January blizzard, Percy is sure she’s off on a toot and sets out to find her.

The setting is Cutler County in Michigan, located on the northern tip of the peninsula between Lake Michigan on the west and Lake Huron on the east. The county, as far as I can tell, is fictional, but the site of the story is a close match for Petoskey, Michigan, Mulhauser’s hometown. It is also the setting of Mulhauser’s earlier Greetings from Cutler County. The weather, particularly the snow and icy wind, is so important to the story that it becomes a character in the drama.

The tale begins as Percy learns her mother was last seen at the farmhouse of Shelton Potter. Shelton is the nephew of Rick Potter, a pillar of the community wealthy from cocaine and marijuana; Shelton makes his money from home-cooked methamphetamines. Though it’s already nine at night, Percy drives her aging pickup to Shelton’s place outside of town.

Afraid she’ll get stuck in the snow, she goes the last mile through the blizzard on foot dressed only in a hoodie and jeans. After a long struggle through the wind and snow, she reaches the farmhouse and spots Carletta’s Bonneville parked in back. Peering through a window from the porch, she makes out Shelton and a woman — not Carletta — in the living room, both apparently unconscious, presumably from drugs. A shotgun leans against the wall.

Percy manages to sneak into the house by the back door, where she is stopped by a stench. Upstairs, she finds the source of the stink: the body of a dead dog. In another bedroom, she comes upon a bassinet labeled “Baby Jenna” by an open window through which snow is blowing. Inside is a screaming baby. Beside the bassinet is a backpack with formula and diapers.

Percy takes the baby and the backpack and heads on foot for the house of Portis Dale, who had once been Carletta’s suitor and the closest thing to a father that Percy has ever known. Percy is sure Portis will be able to get Jenna to the hospital.

All this takes place in the first 15 pages of the novel. And the story gets denser as it proceeds. Before it’s over, one man is dead by suicide, another has burned to death, and two more have been shot.  

The writing is, on the whole, clear and concise, but some craftsmanship elements distracted me from the story. For example, the story is ostensibly told from two different points of view alternating by chapter, those of Percy (first person) and Shelton (third person), but at moments the narrative includes details of which only an omniscient observer would have been aware. Besides that, the first shift in point of view comes in chapter four and stops four chapters before the end.

The style is rich with slang and localisms, beginning with the first sentence: “Nine days after Mama disappeared I heard she was throwing down with Shelton Potter.” But the overall tone is more learned than this reader would expect from characters with little education.

The plotting of the story is intense and fast-moving, but several coincidences struck me as hard to believe: the accidental shooting of Portis when a pistol is thrown into the snow; Carletta’s presence in a trailer that Percy goes to for shelter; and Shelton’s leaving his car keys on the seat of his truck where Percy finds them and makes good her escape.

For all that, Sweetgirl worked its magic on me. I followed Percy’s odyssey, breathless as she risked her life to save Jenna. And Mulhauser deserves special praise for the ending, which I didn’t see coming. I suspect, in the future, readers will hear more tales from Mulhauser set in the cold reaches of Cutler County. Maybe we’ll even learn more about Percy and Jenna, and what becomes of them.

Writer Tom Glenn is best known for his fiction drawn from his 13 years of trekking to and from Vietnam as a covert signals intelligence operative supporting combat units throughout South Vietnam. He survived the Fall of Saigon escaping under fire. With three novels and 16 stories in print, his newest — The Last of the Annamese — set during the Fall of Saigon, will be published in 2016 by the Naval Institute Press.

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