With the heart, daring, and evocative atmosphere of Winter’s Bone and True Grit, and driven by the raw, whip-smart voice of Percy James, a blistering debut about a fearless sixteen-year old girl whose search for her missing mother leads to an unexpected discovery, and a life or death struggle in the harsh frozen landscape of the Upper Midwest.
As a blizzard bears down, Percy James sets off to find her troubled mother, Carletta. For years, Percy has had to take care of herself and Mama—a woman who’s been unraveling for as long as her daughter can remember. Fearing Carletta is strung out on meth and that she won’t survive the storm, Percy heads for Shelton Potter’s cabin, deep in the woods of Northern Michigan. A two-bit criminal, as incompetent as he his violent, Shelton has been smoking his own cook and grieving the death of his beloved Labrador, Old Bo.
But when Percy arrives, there is no sign of Carletta. Searching the house, she finds Shelton and his girlfriend drugged into oblivion—and a crying baby girl left alone in a freezing room upstairs. From the moment the baby wraps a tiny hand around her finger, Percy knows she must save her—a split-second decision that is the beginning of a dangerous odyssey in which she must battle the elements and evade Shelton and a small band of desperate criminals, hell-bent on getting that baby back.
Knowing she and the child cannot make it alone, Percy seeks help from Carletta’s ex, Portis Dale, who is the closest thing she’s ever had to a father. As the storm breaks and violence erupts, Percy will be forced to confront the haunting nature of her mother’s affliction and finds her own fate tied more and more inextricably to the baby she is determined to save.
Filled with the sweeping sense of cultural and geographic isolation of its setting—the hills of fictional Cutler County in northern Michigan—and told in Percy’s unflinching style, Sweetgirl is an affecting exploration of courage, sacrifice, and the ties that bind—a taut and darkly humorous tour-de-force that is horrifying, tender, and hopeful.
When plucky 16-year-old Percy James discovers that her feckless mother, Carletta, is missing from their shabby home in a decaying town at the northwest tip of Michigan's lower peninsula, she jumps in her pickup truck and sets off during a blizzard to look for Carletta at the drug den of Shelton Potter, a maker and dealer of methamphetamine. Carletta is not there, and Shelton and his girlfriend are conked out, but Percy finds a baby girl crying in a freezing-cold bedroom and impulsively grabs her, determined to get the baby to a hospital. Percy enlists the help of her mother's ex-boyfriend, Portis Dale, a gentlemanly alcoholic who greets her by saying, fondly, "Well, shit the bed." This event-filled debut novel then alternates between Percy's desperate attempts to elude a vengeful Shelton, and Shelton's own slow-witted ruminations as he mumbles around the snow-filled woods with his trusty Glock pistol. By the time Carletta shows up and the baby is succored, four men have died: by incineration, by a gun mistakenly fired, by suicide, and by running a snowmobile into a tree. To his credit, Mulhauser evocatively describes the bleak landscape and starkly degraded social mores of an isolated community after the tourists have departed. The novel's credibility suffers, however, from the far too clever and unlikely dialogue spoken by unsavory characters as they consume a prodigious amount of whiskey. A virtually illiterate "scumbag" mutters, "It's an academic point"; another character, who has never left the remote backwoods, refuses to become "one of those pieces of human installation art." Yet the novel succeeds as a coming-of-age story when Percy, having survived grisly violence and abysmal loss, experiences a realization about how to shape her future.