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Atwell's Sinister Supernatural Mystery "Wild Girls"



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October 24, 2012
Mary Stewart Atwell's debut novel, "Wild Girls," combines teenage angst and supernatural mystery in a clever, fast-paced tale. The story is set in a small Appalachian town called Swan River and features a likable heroine named Kate Riordan.

Kate struggles with mundane high school problems. A former friend has become the most popular girl in school. A boy she doesn't consider boyfriend material seems to like her, but she is drawn to a more dangerous, unavailable boy. She worries about college admissions, financial aid and her future in general.

But a teenager in Swan River has even bigger problems. There is a long history of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 erupting into violent rampages. These varied incidents date back to the Civil War and involve fire-starting, murder and general mayhem. The legends claim that these "wild girls" can fly, start fires with a pointed finger, and often end up either dead or in jail.

Nobody in town understands what causes these episodes, but everyone understands that it is something about Swan River. Although most of the girls who turn into wild girls are from the poorer part of town, it can happen to anyone. Kate grows up hearing about wild girls and praying that she won't become one.

The foreboding setting contributes to the tension in the novel. The Academy is a private girls' school on a bluff overlooking Swan River. The lavish 19th-century campus offers a strong contrast to the economically depressed town. Kate and her older sister attend the school at reduced rates because their mother works as a secretary there. Most of the students are not local, and there is a constant low-level conflict between the townspeople and the wealthy outsiders.

Swan River also boasts a defunct commune with a strange herbalist/fortune teller who lives in a broken-down trailer near an overgrown cave entrance.

The new creepy headmaster at Kate's school shows great interest in the local lore and the wild plants around the cave. He teaches a class called Myths and Mysteries, which fuels Kate's sense of impending doom. Strange events at the school and in town prove that Swan River's troubled history is not over.

The story of how Kate deals with her fears about her future and the wild girls touches on some wider themes of frustration, ambition and power. Kate yearns to leave her small town. Because she thinks that living in Swan River is a form of defeat or surrender, Kate does not believe that her sister chooses Swan River after living away. Her fear of being trapped in Swan River is almost as strong as her fear of the wild girls.

"Wild Girls" successfully creates a sinister atmosphere for this engaging tale of a young girl facing her fears and her future.

Mary Stewart Atwell will discuss and sign "Wild Girls" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave. Call 367-6731 for more information.

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