Book review: The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian


Graphic by Riley Gillum, photo credit to Goodreads

Jade Kratochvil reviews “The Girls in the Stilt House,” the debut novel of Kelly Mustian. ” it was a beautiful novel and though the story feels familiar, the way it was written caught my eye, Kratochvil said.


The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian tells the story of Ada and Matilda, two teenage girls on either side of the Trace swamp, which may as well be opposite ends of the world. They both made promises to themselves–promises they couldn’t keep. Ada promised herself long ago she would never return to her abusive father, but when the love of her life leaves her, she has nowhere else to go. Matilda has been saving up to visit her friend in Cleveland, but family obligations hold her back. Their worlds were never meant to collide, but they did, nonetheless, and now, confined to the very house that Ada loathed, they couldn’t be closer. Reveling in their retaliation, they hid in the stilt house–once stained by hate and fear–now collapsing into the swamp. And just like that, against all odds, Ada and Matilda become friends, bound together by murder and secrecy. Set in Mississippi in 1923, racism plays as much of a character in this novel as do Ada and Matilda. Though the Civil War had ended more than 50 years prior, the engendered racism still pollutes the atmosphere.


In The Girls in the Stilt House, Mustian brings attention to the effects of slavery that persist. She presents a sensitive theme: racism will not go away on its own– it must be confronted. Racial prejudice is often manifested through unconscious thoughts. Initially, Ada projected her preconceived notions onto Matilda, as she was the first Black person she met. As the two spend more time together, Ada lets go of the racist tendencies endowed to her by society.
The Girls in the Stilt House talks a lot about found family and dynamic friendships. Family doesn’t always indicate blood relation, but rather support, wherever and from whomever that might be. Ada and Matilda both lost family at a young age, but they will come to find family in each other. Their ways of living are vastly different, even while living in the same house. Matilda is task oriented and focuses more on surviving than living, while Ada is idyllic and prioritizes her happiness over money. Arguably the only thing they have in common is trauma, and that alone is enough to form a familial bond. By choosing each other as family, the girls finally have control over their lives. To Ada, this serves as an opportunity to mend the past and discover the love she deserves but never received. In return, Ada gives Matilda hope for the future she deserves– a life she never imagined she could have. The word “family” shouldn’t be pinned down only to blood relatives, because meaningful connections can be made with anyone, and that’s what family is all about.

My rating: 7/10

The Girls in the Stilt House is a historical/southern fiction story, and it’s meant to be entertaining, so I rated it as such. On the back cover it reads: “For fans of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” but don’t expect a similar experience, because you will be disappointed.

I really enjoyed reading this book, as it kept me engaged throughout. I was surprised to find out that this is Mustian’s debut novel, because it was such a well developed story with good pacing. However, I have a few critiques. There’s one character in the novel, Gertie, who appears as a supporting character, and I would’ve liked it if she had been more fleshed out. She tended to disappear from the text for a few chapters at a time, and appear only when she was needed, sort of like a fairy godmother. (Though she loosely fits the narrative, I don’t think this was a stylistic choice.) I wanted to see more of her, as she was my favorite character. The book is written in third person and switches focus between Ada and Matilda. I don’t normally like this writing style, but before this book, I had only ever seen it written in first person, so I appreciate the unique twist. Overall it was a beautiful novel and though the story feels familiar, the way it was written caught my eye. I felt truly connected to the characters and that’s what kept me turning the pages.