The stink got worse when I reached the second story, and I buried my nose in the crook of my arm and whispered for Carletta. I scanned the floor with my flashlight. The hall was narrow and unlit. The wallpaper was patterned with roosters and torn in wide strips, and beneath the paper, I could see the wood framing, and feel the cold whistling through. There was a door on each side of the hall and when I opened the first, the stench was like a wall I walked smack into. I jerked at the shoulders,and braced myself in the door frame, but couldn’t keep from retching. It was the foulest odor I had ever encountered, and I knew right off to call it death. I retched a second time, and then shone my light. The dog was lying stiff on the carpet in the center of the room, and I cried out when I saw its un-moving marble eyes. I saw the snout receding toward the collapsed jaw, and the fur that lay puddled where the muscles had gone soft. I backed the room and had to keep myself from slamming the door in rage. You want to bake your own brain with a bunch of damn Drano then fine, but leave a helpless animal trapped and starving to death while you did it? I was shaking angry, and had a thought like I should go downstairs and suffocate that son-of-a-bitch Shelton in his sleep.
–Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Sweetgirl is a novel about sixteen-year-old Percy who strikes out in the middle of a snowstorm to find her drug addict mother Carletta, who recently went missing once again. Percy does not find her mother – instead, she finds a baby girl, neglected in a drafty old farmhouse while the child’s mother lays in a drug-induced state downstairs with a local meth dealer named Shelton Potter. Percy knows that she cannot leave the baby alone to suffer – she takes the child with her out into the storm in the hopes that she can get her to a doctor before her condition worsens.
This novel is just as dark as you expect from the description. The druggies are as desperate and reckless as you would think, Percy’s life is as brutal and unforgiving as any child of a drug addict, and the details of baby Jenna’s neglect are as heartbreaking as they sound. However, Sweetgirl still stands out as a novel surprisingly full of forgiveness and hope. The point of view undoubtedly helped: the majority of the novel is told from Percy’s matter-of-fact perspective, and while she sees her life as it is, she still has that child-like expectation that things will work out in the long run. At the beginning of the novel, Percy comes across baby Jenna in a room by herself with an open window, and is determined to get Jenna to a hospital where she can be treated. Percy demonstrates an innocent confidence that if Jenna can make it to a hospital, her life will be dramatically improved; some adults may assume that Jenna will have a hard childhood no matter what, knowing that she will either be returned to her neglectful mother or go into a foster care system that often does not serve children well, but Percy does not show the same level of pessimism.
Sweetgirl absolutely does not flinch away from the brutal poverty of Michigan, and that, I believe, is the key to the development of the setting in this novel. As the action is beginning, a snowstorm is starting, spurring Percy to head out to find her mother and bring her home. She travels from house to house in a rural setting covered in snow, suffering frostbite, endangering her own life to save Jenna’s, we are taken across a wintery landscape as the snowstorm rages. I particularly appreciated the details given in the description of Shelton’s farmhouse and mobile home – I had a great mental picture of the world through which Percy moves. Even the culture of the drug world, and especially the conflict between Shelton and the Mexican American community was interesting – character development is almost always more thorough when we understand their world.
A novel like this one could easily tend towards simplified characters, especially the villains, but I was pleased to find that all the characters of Sweetgirl seemed well developed with strengths and weaknesses. Percy is compassionate and devoted to her family, willing to do anything to help those that need it, oftentimes at her own expense. Percy’s almost-stepfather Portis is an alcoholic and often irresponsible, but has a strong moral core and is willing to help Percy regardless of the personal cost. Even Shelton Potter, the “villain” of the novel, cares deeply for Jenna’s mother and when he believes that Jenna has been hurt he goes to great lengths to find her and bring her back – he is a villain due to his own poor decision-making and ignorance of babies. He never intended to hurt Jenna, he simply was ignorant (tremendously so) of how to take care of a child, and his drug addition makes him incredibly destructive and self-destructive.
In all, I would give Sweetgirl a 10 out of 10. This is a quick read whose gritty realism will appeal to some, while its well-developed characters and persistent optimism will appeal to the rest. I believe that anyone who picks this novel up will be glad that they did so, even considering its dark subject matter.