N.C. author's debut novel tells tale of surviving The South while The '20s roared

·2 min read
"The Girls in the Stilt House" is the debut novel from North Carolina author Kelly Mustian.
"The Girls in the Stilt House" is the debut novel from North Carolina author Kelly Mustian.

Fans of Delia Owens' "Where the Crawdads Sing" should enjoy "The Girls in the Stilt House," the debut novel by North Carolina author Kelly Mustian. Like Owens, Mustian tells a story of women's resilience on the edge of a wilderness — with a dash of murder thrown in.

The stilt house in the title sits on the edge of a swamp just off the Natchez Trace, the historic trail dating to before Columbus that ran north from what is now Natchez, Mississippi.

The two girls are Ada Morgan, 16, and Matilda Patterson, 17 or so.

We first meet Ada, the daughter of a drunken, sadistic fur trapper. Ada ran away from home with a traveling fiddle player. Now, seduced and abandoned, she's come home since she has nowhere else to go.

Ada's mom died many years ago under sinister circumstances, and Ada barely went to school. She's naive, and doesn't realize she's four months pregnant.

More: 'Manteo's World' is a treasure trove of information on how the first Americans lived in N.C.

Ada's dad comes to a bad end and almost immediately, Matilda shows up. The daughter of a black sharecropper, Matilda has to lay low for a variety of reasons, so she takes Ada under her wing. She swaps the old fur traps for chickens, starts a small garden and puts Ada in touch with the local midwife.

Eventually we learn Matilda's back story, including the horrors and indignities visited upon African Americans in Jim Crow Mississippi.

Since it's 1923, we also see how Ada's father and Matilda's father are both caught up in the web of Prohibition bootlegging, smuggling white lightning to St. Louis and points north.

Eventually there are a series of homicides. As the song goes in the musical "Chicago," he had it coming. Ada and Matilda have to cover their tracks and lay low if they want to survive, much less help Ada's baby daughter.

Mustian lives in the Piedmont now, but she grew up on the Natchez Trace. She knows the territory, and her images of farm life and the natural world are vivid. She writes in an understated style reminiscent of Mississippi author Tom Franklin ("Hell at the Breach," "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter").

"The Girls in the Stilt House" marks Mustian as a writer to watch.

BOOK REVIEW

'THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE'

By Kelly Mustian

Napierville, Ill.: Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99 paperback

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Mustian's The Girls in the Stilt House vividly depicts the 1920s South

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