“When the swamp took my brother, it sent someone—something else to take his place. I don’t know what Lenora May is, but she’s not my sister.”
This book is a dark American fairy tale.
In Celtic mythology, we often hear about the changeling in connection with the fae, fairies, whatever you call them. The fae are capricious creatures. They will take what they please, and in some instances, they will take whomever they please. Children, newborn infants, specifically, are particularly vulnerable. The beautiful child will disappear, abducted by the fae, leaving an ugly, wizened, “wrong,” fae child in its place.
This book has that similar premise, with a twist. Instead of Ireland or the UK, we have the swamps of the deep South in the US. The “child” being abducted is a young man, about to go to college. What’s different is that all memories of the abducted are erased.
The writing is great. The main character is a sympathetic one. There is no insta-love. The atmosphere of the Deep South is well-written, and there is a sense of eeriness and frustration that is pervasive throughout the book. This is one of the better YA paranormal books I have read.
“The swamp ate my brother.”
Sterling Saucier is about to finish her sophomore year of high school when the unthinkable happens: her brother Phineas, in a fit of anger, in an unthinking moment – steps into the swamps behind Sticks, Louisiana. Everyone in town knows not to go into the swamp. It’s dangerous. Once you go in, you never leave.
Even the plants know better: stay the fuck out. The swamp stays away from the people. The people stay away from the swamp. It is a tenuous peace.
For some reason, the swamp stays firmly on the other side. A few brave plants may reach across the line, but by and large, the swamp keeps as much distance from us as we do of it.
Phineas has been gone for hours, and Sterling is frantic. She is panicking, feeling like she will never see her brother again, when out of the swamp steps a girl. Not Phin. A strange girl whom Sterling has never seen before.
Her hand extends slowly and she hesitates before finding the fence. Dark hair hangs in her face, wild with curls and lovely in a way mine will never be. She climbs with something less than grace, fumbles with her dress, and nearly falls to the ground in my yard.
Everyone tells Sterling that this is her sister.
“I want to know who she is, why she’s here, and why you’re all acting like you know her. I watched her climb over the swamp fence, for crying out loud!”
“Now you’re worrying me,” Mama says. “Are you telling me you don’t recognize your own sister?”
The trouble is Sterling knows otherwise. She somehow has memories of this stranger.
I can’t remember someone who doesn’t exist. I can’t remember that her favorite color is purple but thinks Chevelles look best in red. I don’t even know her name.
Except I do.
Lenora May. May to her friends. Lenora to teachers and Aunt Mina. But Lenora May to me. Always Lenora May.
But Sterling knows: this is not her sister. Phin is her brother, and he has disappeared. Nobody remembers her but him.
Well, not nobody. Someone knows what she’s going through. Somebody believes her. Somebody who has lost someone of his own.
“Nathan Payola,” he says. He waits for me to react, but there’s nothing for me to react to. Angrily, he adds, “He was my best friend.”
That somebody is Heath. Heath is a boy at her school. He is not unfamiliar to her, in fact, they had a short, brief, flirtation.
Heath wasn’t a talker, but when he did talk, the words we shared were sweet and supplemented with notes of the flirting variety.
Only that flirtation abruptly stopped…and now she knows why. Heath was struggling with the same thing she was, the loss of a friend, and the knowledge that nobody believes him.
And now they’re in the same boat, and as cute as Heath is, as much of a brief history they’ve had together, there are more important things at hand right now, like how to get her brother back.
At any other time, I’d be stuck on him admitting he ditched me. But now, all I can think of is Phin.
A situation doomed to end in frustration now shows a small ray of hope, because they’re in this together.
We can’t fight something we don’t understand. But I remember what Heath said about hope. I’m not going to let the swamp have that, too.
And they’re going to cling on to every last vestige of that hope they can. Hope is all they have.
There are a hundred ways to die all cloaked in the twist of pale trees—gators fast enough to catch a grown man, mosquitoes teeming with disease, stinging plants, hungry black bears, and nasty cottonmouths all filled with spite and patience.
Tell people that swamps are a dangerous place, and they’ll give you a “No shit, Sherlock,” stare. But they don’t know about the swamps behind Sticks, Louisiana.
But what’s in ours is worse.
Ours is a creature all its own. We don’t stare into its depths and we don’t ever go inside.
I love a creepy, small Southern town atmosphere, and this book absolutely delivers. It is filled with local legends, lore, creepiness on its own.
This is a dead-end small town in which anyone with aspirations for a better life needs to get the fuck out. There is no future here.
Most of the good folk of Sticks consider it’d be faster to throw your money in a fire if you’re that keen on wasting it, but then, most of the good folk of Sticks think the periodic table has something to do with birth control.
Much of the population can be described by urban citizens as “white trash.” The point is to get out. Leave it all behind.
The swamp itself is a terrifying thing, filled with creatures like the one that wears Phin’s skin.
“I’m hungry,” he says, a sound that seems to crawl from his throat. It’s devoid of the warmth Phin’s voice should have, all mud and gravel. He reaches with webbed hands, each finger tipped with a sharp, black claw.
Not my brother, I think, a trick.
There is a tale of horror that lies behind the mystery that held my attention as it unfolded. This is truly a beautifully descriptive, atmospheric book.
he was gone.
And it’s my fault.
If I was afraid to live in a town without Phineas, I’m plain terrified of living in a world without him.
I absolutely loved Sterling. Trigger warning: the main character has an eating disorder, brought on by the stress of her beloved brother leaving. I thought the portrayal of said eating disorder was well done, because there is an emphasis in this book that eating disorders are not about being thin. It is a mental disorder, exacerbated by stress, by any number of things. Sterling’s mitigating factor just happened to be her brother.
The first time she asked me about this, I’d tried and failed to explain that it wasn’t about wanting to be thin; I couldn’t think of food when the threat of losing Phin to college was so near.
So many people in Sterling’s life give her a hard time about her anorexia, and it is impossible for her to explain to them: it is not about being thin. I think this aspect of her character was adequately done.
I like the fact that Sterling is a devoted sister. She truly loves her brother. She constantly thinks about him. She always seeks to get him back. She will go to any lengths, overcome her own fears of the swamp in order to attempt to rescue him.
The swamp continues to beckon.
I can do this.
“Phineas Harlan Saucier,” I say to whatever might be listening. “I’m coming for my brother.”
Her beauty is never mentioned. Not everyone falls in love with her. Sterling is a realistic character with real flaws, real hurts, and is wholly sympathetic because of them.
Characters who should be the enemy have depths. They have life. They are filled with spirit.
“You’ve been so safe all your life. So safe you might as well be dead. Phin did that, he kept you from living, but I won’t. I promise you, I only want to live as fiercely as I can.”
They have stories. They are not mindless monsters, creatures to be feared. They are people. An unknown and nonexistent sister, not a monster, a person who may turn out to be someone who could be admired.
Lenora May doesn’t care that she’s in the dirt or that she’ll have to wash her dress three times to get rid of the stubborn smells that follow you home from the track, and not caring makes her both vulnerable and beautiful.
I feel small and secure in his arms with my hip balanced against his thigh. This is different from the kiss. That felt chaotic and delirious and like something beginning. This is the opposite. Together we are solid and smart and somehow not new at all.
Now this is how I like my romance. Sterling and Heath have a small romantic past, but they are above all else, friends and allies. She understands him. He understands her. They have a shared past, and a shared present. He is the only one who understands her pain, having gone through it himself.
Heath is a bad boy, but not one as you’d expect. He developed that reputation after having gone through the frustration of losing a friend. Heath is a good kid who started acting out of frustration and anger and pain. He is never, ever an asshole.
Hell, he’s actually quite a gentleman.
“Sterling Saucier,” he says.
His eyes narrow in a smile. Sunlight shines through them, illuminating too many rings of brown and brass to count. He bends closer.
“May I kiss you?” he asks.
Overall: an excellent book.
All quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof subject to change in the final edition.