Reviewed by Lawrence W. Markert
LAWRENCE W. MARKERT is a professor at Hollins University.
In Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” Pentheus, then king of Thebes, remarks on the fantastic stories about the Maenads, women driven to ecstatic frenzy by the god Dionysus: “This Bacchic arrogance advances on us like a spreading fire. … This is beyond all bearing, if we must let women so defy us.” “Wild Girls,” the wonderful debut novel by Mary Stewart Atwell, a Roanoke native who grew up in Radford, breathes new life into this mythic pattern, setting her coming-of-age and female identity story in a private girls high school in the small Appalachian town of Swan River. (I have met Atwell, a Hollins graduate, but she was not one of my students.)
The narrator, Kate Riordan, alerting us that she is telling her story from the more seasoned perspective of adulthood, says that her hometown “could have been known for murder the way Chicago is known for pizza, Roswell for aliens.” The novel begins by evoking legends, mysteries of wild girls whose preferred weapon is fire. Newspapers and other “authorities” try to provide rational explanations, but those who live in the town knew better. When a girl turned 16, “everybody started to look at you as if you were a suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.”
“Wild Girls” skillfully mixes a realistic depiction of the complexities of private-school life for a townie who feels somewhat awkward among the more privileged students of the school with a more mythic or supernatural actuality. Boundaries “between our world and the other world stretched thin.” At one moment we see Kate participate in a prank at a hippie community festival, the next we step into “a witch’s den out of fairytale.”
Kate presents the story to us with intelligence beyond her years, although at times she questions her perspective. As with other coming-of-age novels, such as D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the child’s perceptions benefit from the retrospect of adulthood. The dual viewpoint helps create mystery and suspense. The plot often centers on what the narrator didn’t realize at the time.
Atwell constructs an appealing array of characters, all fully realized. Along with Kate is her older sister Maggie, a bluegrass musician who runs away from school after she participates in a “wild girl” incident. Later she comes back to settle in Swan River. Kate’s overriding desire is not to be trapped in her hometown like her sister and so many other girls. Willow, one of her best friends, comes from among the more well-off girls at the school. Caroline, Kate’s most intellectual friend, writes a senior thesis on the mysteries and origins of the wild girl legends.
The men in the novel, most of whom serve in supporting roles, include the rather furtive headmaster of the school, Dr. David Bell, who teaches a course on Myths and Mysteries, which focuses on “myths of our unconscious” or “our most primitive selves.” Mason, the underachiever, handsome local boy, is the brother of one of the local wild girls. Clancy, another local boy, is shyer but more devoted to Kate.
Atwell also successfully weaves character and plot. At times, events seem a bit expected, but necessity trumps cliche. The mystery — who are the wild girls and will Kate become one? — moves the plot along with insightful character nuance.
The tension between the two worlds begins to take on an important metaphorical dimension. The coming-of-age novel emphasizes the process of characters developing a better understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. Kate and others struggle with the desire to have power over their destinies or the limitations that seem inevitable. Thus, as she says, “the wild girl is with me always; she is my rage and my hunger.”
Let me add, as well, that the blurb on the novel cover does not do it justice.