Mary Stewart Atwell
Atwell blends the myth of wild girls with the awakening feminism in an Appalachian setting, where Kate Riordan enrolls at Swan Lake Academy instead of the local high school that the others from her small town attend. Thanks to her mother’s employment at the exclusive academy, Kate becomes part of the wealthy set of spoiled young women and is attracted almost immediately to red-haired Willow Becker. Willow seems interested in forming a friendship as well, though her reason is unclear.
When bringing Willow home for a visit, it gradually dawns on Kate that what she considers normal is a far cry from the experiences of girls like Willow. Attending a local celebration with Kate and her family, Willow is exposed to a bevy of Swan Lake’s legendary Wild Girls, a group whose wrath can be deadly. While Kate harbors a secret crush on the local bad boy, Mason Lemons, Willow doesn’t hesitate to make her interest in Mason known, despite the fact that his sister, Crystal, is a wild girl and their mother is a fortuneteller who mixes potions and spells in an isolated trailer nearby.
The myth of the wild girls is at the heart of the novel, a pack of angry young women who attack and murder with impunity, the local lore of their existence unassailable. Kate is the repository of information about the wild girls, perhaps even a member of her own family, though she fears she might become one as well, the concept thinly veiled as feminist empowerment and its consequences: “The wild girl is with me always; she is my rage and my hunger.” The main focus of the tale on the arrogant Willow, with whom Kate develops a confused ambivalence, deftly convincing herself that this shallow, dangerous creature has a soft side, all evidence to the contrary. Kate also suspects a professor is nurturing a cult of so-called wild girls at the academy but is helpless to do anything about it, the tension building as graduation nears and tragedy strikes.
Willow’s callous disregard for Mason’s feelings has predictable results, Kate caught in the middle, blinded by her own emotional pain. While local anecdotes reveal the history of wild girls in Swan Lake and in Kate’s family, the revelations come to nothing, absorbed into the town’s acclimation of the bizarre and the banal, as though the violence in Swan Lake is nothing extraordinary, a story on a drunken summer night. This confusion between myth and reality (as acted out in the novel), the elitist attitudes of the wealthy girls and the poverty of the surrounding area, real-life tragedy and the ominous whispers of an impending “wild girl” attack coexist in a kind of netherworld where fact and fiction collide.
Kate is a humdrum girl with a broken heart who is symbiotically attached to a sociopathic girl, her relationship with Willow eventually sowing destruction that infects everything attached to the academy. This doomsday scenario pushes the novel into uncharted territory from which no one escapes unscathed. Beyond the theme of feminist awakening and the inherent threat of female rage unleashed, there is no explanation for the drama in Wild Girls, a fantastical allegory that ends with gothic horror. The experience was not as satisfying as anticipated.