Last week I flew with Mariella down to Little Rock to stay with my grandmother. Between the nap-heavy schedules of both a two-year-old and an eighty-five-year-old, I had ample (and welcome) quiet time to read a book at record pace since becoming a momma. My packed paperback of Natalie C. Parker's Beware the Wild helped fill my couch-sitting, air-conditioned afternoons (I tried to take the kiddo to a playground, the zoo, etc., every morning, but by 11 AM every day I'd sweated through my clothes, was in need of a second shower, and wanted only to stay inside till dusk when the mosquitos would chase me back in - welcome home!).
I both loved and didn't like this book and I've spent the days since finishing it parsing why both of these feelings coexist. The reasons I love it hinge on the writing itself and the setting. The novel is set in fictional Sticks, Louisiana. First, I think naming a backwoods southern town "Sticks" is a tad lazy, but Parker makes up for it. Parker's Sticks is populated by strong women and complicated people who are all subject to Parker's astute eye for describing southern tropes, idiosyncrasies, and contradictions. I hate books about the south that either don't understand the south or straight disparage it, and as a broad observation, those types of books are *usually* written by authors not from the south. Parker attended a southern university (is she from the south? I didn't read a comprehensive bio), and manages to include elements of the south's beauty, grit, and ugliness all in a short span of 350 large-type, YA pages. She gets it.
Sticks is set on the edge of a swamp that essentially eats people. Those who venture in are swallowed whole, including every memory about them in the minds of everyone they ever knew. When a Sticks resident disappears in the swamp, the world rearranges as though that person never existed. But when 16-year-old Sterling Saucier's older brother, Phin, disappears into the swamp, Sterling remembers him. Worse, she alone knows the girl who walks out of the swamp and assumes his life is an imposter.
The novel is the perfect combination of atmospheric and creepy... in the beginning. My first problem comes when the secrets of the swamp are spilled before I'd even read past the first quarter of the book. The tension and elements of horror were lost, perhaps eaten by the swamp and forgotten? I don't know. I read on, though, and enjoyed the novel, but wanted to take scissors, cut out the big reveal, and paste those paragraphs in the back of the book. Wa-la. A perfect, frightening southern YA tale. Someone hire me to beta read, I'm availalble!
My second major issue and the only other one worth mentioning is with Sterling's reason for developing an eating disorder and fighting with her brother. Phin accepted a scholarship to Tulane and Sterling, the dedicated sister, gets so upset she stops eating and lets their relationship slide into antagonism. Girl. I get that she has trauma in her backstory, but I can't fathom being almost a junior in high school - almost free of Sticks herself - and being so upset that her brother is off to university that she sabotages her health and his future. An author is free to assign motivation to a character as they please, but this made it incredibly difficult to like Sterling (ignoring that behavior, I did).
Back to the joys of the setting, I was so engrossed in this dangerous, haunted swamp that I didn't want to leave it after finishing and spent way too long watching YouTube videos of Louisiana swamp tours and documentaries on swamp dwellers. Not time wasted, though, as this led me to learn about Gwen Roland, whose books Atchafalaya Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp and Postmark Bayou Chene are now on my TBR short list. The documentary about her years in the swamp is free to watch on YouTube.
Now that the family visit and Little Rock-tall-pine-recharge has given way to real life in Denver, time to finish the first draft of my YA fantasy-southern-gothic-mashup (looking forward to it).