Thursday, June 11, 2015

'Wild Girls' by Mary Atwell - Audiobook Review

Wild GirlsWild Girls by Mary S Atwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kate Reardon is a high school freshman. Her father has passed away when Kate was small. She lives with her mother, her mom's boyfriend Travis (the local sheriff's deputy, and a nice guy although a bit of a stoner), and her older sister Maggie. They live in the small Southern town of Swan River. The river is the town's predominant feature. Many of the residents spend their whole lives without crossing the bridge out of town, but not Kate and Maggie. Mother Reardon is an administrative assistant for Dr. Bell, the dean of the local girls' academy. Through her, the working-class Reardon girls are able to attend the fancy-pants preparatory academy.

But as one might expect in an atmospheric piece of Southern gothic/borderline horror fiction, Swan River is a town with a secret. It's an open secret and a mystery among the residents, but hidden from the outside world: Swan River is the home of the Wild Girls. These paranormal creatures start out as ordinary teenager girls, generally between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. (Dangerous 16th Birthday trope, anyone?) Seemingly at random, they're transformed: glowing skin, the ability to spark fire with their bare fingertips, extraordinary strength and violence, and the propensity to fly away. Then, just as suddenly, they return to normal girls, left to deal with the consequences of their supernatural mayhem and, occasionally, murder.

Kate is terrified she'll become a Wild Girl, and at the same time, she's a little afraid that she won't.

In the book's prologue, Kate and Maggie attend the town's yearly festival with Mom and Travis. It's held on the local commune, Bloodwort Farm, home of the Deadnecks. The nickname is a portmanteau of Deadhead (used as a general term for hippie types, whether they actually listen to the Grateful Dead or not) and redneck (used as a general term for socioeconomically disadvantaged Caucasian-Americans). Although Kate and her friend Willow aren't aware of it at first, it will be the town's last summer festival because of the strange events that occur that night. A seemingly innocent(ish) prank by local bully Crystal Lemons involving Roman candles turns into something far more sinister and threatening. By the morning, Crystal is dead, the commune-dwelling Bird Man (so called for his tattoo) is grievously injured, and the commune has mostly burned down.

An equally important development that night is that Kate and Willow meet Mason Lemons, Crystal's bad-boy brother. The three of them will become something of a love triangle, but all the relationships in the triangle are doomed from the start. Dr. Bell is a student of folklore and mythology, and he knows much more than he's letting on about the Wild Girls. He theorizes a connection between them and the Maenads of ancient Greek myth. (You may remember the Maenads from such literary works as Charlaine Harris's Living Dead in Dallas.)

An important literary reference - and one which, I admit, I haven't read - is The Bacchae by the ancient Athenian playwright Euripides. The play describes an attempt by a king to outlaw the worship of the god Dionysus and the subsequent revenge enacted upon that king by Dionysus's followers, the crazed Maenads. Dr. Bell fancies himself a modern Dionysus, but it turns out he is merely the king.

One of the interesting themes throughout this novel is the relationship between male authority and female wildness. We see it in the relationship between Mama Reardon and Travis, in the relationship between banjo-playing Maggie and her bandmate/lover Kevin (a.k.a. Kayak Boy), and we see it in the relationships between Kate, Willow, Mason, and Mason's pal/organic gardening enthusiast Clancy. (Clancy may or may not become the great love of Kate's life - the novel leaves it open-ended. They do share a passion for the environment.) We even see glimpses of it in the relationship between Willow and her parents. To what extent is a woman to put aside her own wildness, her own passions and enthusiasms, in exchange for the love and/or civilizing influence of a man? The author's answer seems to be, "It is a delicate balance. Different women will land of different sides of the equation."

The writing throughout this novel is beautiful and strange, even more poetic and lovely than the Southern-style writing I admired in Beautiful Creatures. Kate is a smart, savvy heroine well able to handle the dangers that creep into her world. She thinks she's not as tough as her sister Maggie, but she's wrong. She is both physically and emotionally stronger than she ever imagined.

I would recommend this book to anyone with the caveat that it contains scenes of graphic violence and an attempted rape scene. Those who are sensitive to violence may want to sit this one out.

In the novel, Willow and the other women drink bloodwort tea. Bloodwort, also known as bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is a real plant, and like tansy it has been used in traditional medicinal practices. However, it should be noted that ingesting bloodroot extracts is NOT recommended, since it contains substances that are known to be toxic to animal cells. (It is, however, being studied as a potential cancer treatment.) Perhaps the best traditional use of bloodroot is as a red dye; it is so used by some American Indian basket weavers.

View all my reviews on Goodreads. I checked this audiobook out of my local public library and wasn't obligated to review it in any way.

Creative Commons image by Shawn Caza (

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