Life in Northern Michigan is a far cry from small-town comfort or sophisticated cityscapes. Cutler County is littered with the remnants of those beaten into submission by poverty and harsh weather, methamphetamine a scourge on the population, scattering families who hunker down to stay warm and wait out the latest crisis. Sixteen-year-old Percy James has assumed the role of caretaker for her meth-addicted mother, Carletta, Percy’s older sister, Starr, having moved to Portland, Oregon with her husband and new baby.
Percy encouraged Starr to go, the sisters heartened by Carletta’s sobriety. But before long, addiction calls, and Percy is on her mother’s trail, the woman most likely to be found at her dealer’s farmhouse: “Crisis is a constant when you’re a daughter of Carletta James.” Quietly approaching Shelton Potter’s remote home, Percy sneaks inside while Potter and
young Kayla Hawthorne sprawl, oblivious while traveling the temporary nirvana of their drug of choice. Upstairs, Percy doesn’t see Carletta but discovers a baby--her crib says “Jenna”--the child’s ragged howling obscured by the repetitive beat of music at full volume. Near frantic with a raging diaper rash, the snow drifting in an open window, the baby is a pitiful sight, Percy unable to leave without the infant, planning to get her to a hospital for treatment.
It is a daunting and dangerous journey, Percy on foot, stumbling through the frozen terrain to the shack of one of Carletta’s former boyfriends, Portis Dale, for whom Percy and Starr still have great affection. Although Portis has seen better days, he agrees to help Percy get Jenna to a hospital, a route that will take them through a wilderness to reach his truck, abandoned after a drunken spree. Meanwhile, Shelton wakes up, realizes the baby is missing, and takes off on his snowmobile to search, but not before offering a bounty to any of his cronies who locate the missing baby. Though an unrepentant meth dealer, Shelton has moments of clarity as he envisions himself rescuing Jenna from her abductor, his impulsive search fortified with marijuana and balloons of nitrous oxide, the infant’s mother still sleeping off her latest binge: “Shelton though about how precarious it all was, life and the universe.”
Mulhauser creates a believable world where existence is hard, poverty relieved by drugs that further decimate the lives of those caught up in a deadly cycle. Percy
is wise beyond her years and still believes in Carletta, the chance to save Jenna a salve for her over-burdened soul: “Chaos itself was always a confirmation of the dread I carried blood deep and certain in my bones.” Despite the squalor, neglect, and dispirited characters that people Sweetgirl, the inherent violence of the drama is tempered by unexpected humanity that exists in even the most hard-hearted. While drugs have leeched the kindness out of bitter men who live by crime and their sometimes compromised wits, there are times when younger selves peek from behind the jaded façade of outliers.
Jenna is the kernel of hope found in the midst of chaos, Percy the unlikely agent of redemption, Portis heeding the young woman’s supplication for help against impossible odds. Cutler County is a microcosm of a civilization bred to hardship on the fringes of a state both beautiful and treacherous, hope the cry of a helpless infant, deliverance the determination of a young woman rejecting the seduction of despair.