The Girls in the Stilt House

Written by Kelly Mustian
Review by Bryan Dumas

Ada Morgan begrudgingly returns home to her stilt house deep in the swamps of the Mississippi Natchez Trace, and to a father, Virgil, a trapper, who is less than kind. Pregnant, Ada does what she can to appease Virgil, but his anger knows no bounds. Matilda Patterson is the daughter of a sharecropper bound to the land by a bootlegger who is also using Virgil. Matilda has grown to distrust Virgil, and she begins lurking around the stilt house. When Virgil threatens Ada, Matilda does the unthinkable, forever binding the two girls.

Told in parts, moving between Ada’s and Matilda’s stories and back and forth in time, Mustian delves into the darker side of the Prohibition era. Ada struggles to raise a baby, with Matilda’s often cold detachment, in the depths of the Trace, and her hopes of becoming a seamstress appear just out of reach. Matilda lives under the harsh yolk of racism and is witness to multiple crimes against Black people. She takes to writing these stories down, and they eventually become published under a pseudonym in Ohio, where she hopes to escape. Ada and Matilda’s relationship is often tenuous, but there are tender moments interspersed.

Mustian envelops the reader in the heat and humidity of the Trace. Slowly unraveling secrets, Mustian holds the reader’s attention, though careful attention should be paid to the chapter headings, especially the dates. This is more than a story about American racism; kinship and survival, when all hope seems lost, remind the reader of the struggles of Americans in the 1920s Deep South. With a wonderful cast of secondary characters, some despicable and others genuinely wonderful, this is an emotional tour de force that will linger with readers long after the last page is read.