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The Girls in the Stilt House


The Girls in the Stilt House

Teenager Ada Morgan has just done what she had sworn she would never do. She’s returning to the Trace after a disastrous year-long affair with a traveling musician who swept her off her feet and to Baton Rouge until he informed her that he was moving back to Texas to be with his family. Little did he know that he had started his own family with Ada, whom he left completely bereft and a few months pregnant with his child.

In 1923, there are zero resources for a young woman in trouble. In addition to dealing with the Trace’s nearly impenetrable swamps, Ada must face her cruel and sadistic father, Virgil, who takes his rage out on whichever unfortunate soul is nearest. She will have to do her penance and take his vicious retribution because she is a girl out of options: “Ada knew her father well enough to know he was biding his time, the same as when he was stalking a deer or hand fishing for catfish. He would not lose the prize by striking too soon or going about things in the wrong way, the prize, in this case, Ada, his daughter come home shamed and needy and looking to him. He needed time in the woods to work out how he was going to humble her up…” Ever since her mother’s death, Ada doesn’t have anyone in her corner, but recently someone left her a sign indicating that she may not be alone after all.

"...expertly crafted and assuredly told... If you’re looking for a worthy successor to WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, look no further than THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE."

Matilda Patterson is the 16-year-old daughter of sharecropper Dalton and his wife, Teensy. They live on the other side of the Trace, where the population is mostly the Black people who toil on local farms. Dalton works on Curtis Creedle’s farm, and his dream is to eventually buy his own piece of land for his family. To do this, he has to make a deal with the devil. He agrees to store and deliver illegal moonshine to locals for his boss, who promises to forgive his debt at the end of one year.

Matilda herself has dreams of joining her friend, Rainey, in Cleveland, Ohio, where Rainey has an uncle who owns and runs a Black newspaper. She has been saving every dime she can by taking on extra work in addition to what she’s been doing in the fields. This move will have to wait until her mother delivers her latest baby and is back up on her feet. But when a violent incident propels these two girls together, plans to leave are jettisoned and replaced with the simple act of survival.

They decide to join forces out of necessity. Matilda tells Ada, “I’m needing a place to stay. And I figure anybody four months on and blind to it is somebody going to be needing some help.” She and Gertie, the local midwife, can help Ada prepare for her baby. With her brash confidence and knowledge, Ada is “in awe of Matilda. She felt as if a switch had been turned on inside herself the moment Matilda showed up. With Matilda, life had new possibilities. Life itself seemed a possibility.” But for Matilda, the swamp just holds her down.

Even though they are both poor, there are advantages to Ada’s porcelain skin: “Matilda tried to find her own way between the two of them, a way around all those low expectations, but there wasn’t a path to anywhere that she could see from where she was. The problem --- one of the problems, as she saw it --- was that a person, at least a person in her own circumstances, couldn’t have a respectable dream in a place like this.” But Ada needs help, and Matilda needs a place to lay low, for reasons that Ada will find out later. At this moment in 1920s backwoods Mississippi, quite possibly no two people need each other more.

It is amazing to think that THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE is Kelly Mustian’s debut novel as it is so expertly crafted and assuredly told. Her artful descriptions of the landscape leave readers feeling the humidity and smelling the moss. The perilous story of these two young ladies has shades of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and much like the racial issues that Scout and Jem faced in that classic, Ada and Matilda are navigating these dangerous waters themselves. It’s hard not to draw parallels to today’s Black Lives Matter movement: “She tried to hold back the hot tears that came. Tears that came because she was angry, she insisted to herself. Not afraid. Not broken. Angry.”

If you’re looking for a worthy successor to WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, look no further than THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 9, 2021

The Girls in the Stilt House
by Kelly Mustian

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728217717
  • ISBN-13: 9781728217710