A novel that sets out to make a political point runs the risk of straying into the polemical – less novel, more essay. That’s a fate that co-authors Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel manage to avoid with their new crime thriller, Wayward Girls. A dedication reveals the novel was inspired by events at Artesia Hall, a wilderness school in Texas where a female student died in 1972, and Florida’s infamous Dozier School for Boys, which finally closed in 2011. The result is a highly readable book with a strong sense of purpose.
The story begins in the present day, when the adult Jude receives a call from an old friend known as Farmer Max who tells her that her old boarding school, Talbot Hall for Girls, is about to be demolished. Jude had a best friend and fellow sufferer there, Camille, but they have lost touch. Farmer Max calls Camille too.
Jude is now an artist, making a reasonable living fro the sale of her paintings; Camille is a psychotherapist and college professor. Both women decide to make the trip to central Florida and their former school. Camille digs out her journals and the impressions of her 15-year-old self lead you into the story.
The school is a giant, gothic-looking building with fake turrets and a tower out in the middle of nowhere, partly surrounded by orange groves. What terrible acts brought Jude and Camille to Talbot? Camille skipped school to spend time with her boyfriend (she’s still a virgin). Her psychotherapist, Dr Hedstrom, recommended Talbot and her parents were happy to have her out of the house. After Jude, feeling provoked, shoves her therapist, they conclude she has the ‘potential for violence’. Both girls ostensibly need ‘a more structured environment.’
Not that the girls are angels. Jude smokes cigarettes and pot when she can get it. Her roommate, a Hawaiian girl named Makena, hooks her up with the man who supplies her weed – Farmer Max. Warnings pass among the girls not to trust the housemother Mrs Dalfour or Jack, the young handyman who spies on them. At least, Camille thinks, she’s away from creepy Dr Hedstrom. Then he takes a part-time position at the school and keeps trying to insinuate himself into Camille’s life and renew their therapy sessions.
Another new girl enters the mix: Wanda Ann Mosby. Camille and Jude see Dr Hedstrom giving her cash. Wanda is the wildest of them – loud and brash and undereducated.
With that setup – the eagle-eyed Mrs Dalfour, Jack the pornographer, Dr Hedstrom the creep, and the ineffectual headmaster – the girls try to get on with their schooling and stay out of the grownups’ way. When some of Camille’s possessions go missing, she makes a big deal of it, but then they reappear. She doesn’t know what to think, but the other girls do. They think she’s crazy, and you can’t believe anything she says. A perfect gaslight.
The reconstruction of Camille and Jude’s teen years occupies most of the story, but there are flash forwards to today as they meet at Farmer Max’s bar and juke joint. Jude and he used to be an item, and she’s surprised to find his place decorated with several of her paintings. Matturro and Koepsel give some hints as to what happened all those years before – a fire, an allegation of murder – and it’s uncertain whether Camille and Jude can get past all that to reconnect.
As teenagers, they recognise that something is not right at Talbot, and it takes them a while to figure out what that may be. But investigating by themselves is perilous under the watchful eyes of the staff and surrounded by adults with their own agendas.
Matturro and Koepsel have plotted the tale well, with high stakes and believable motives. The central Florida location – hot, humid, buggy – seems the very definition of a neglected, out-of-sight place where bad things can happen unimpeded. The authors falter a bit in characterisation, without the depth you might want, and Dr Hedstrom, especially, is so transparently awful. Nevertheless, I grew to care about Jude and Camille, about Wanda and Farmer Max and how they might escape their horrible situation.
Red Adept Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars