‘Sawkill Girls’ by Claire Legrand: A YA Horror Story with Female Heroes

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With “Sawkill Girls,” author Claire Legrand creates a positively Stephen King-ish horror story that takes place on an exclusive island for the extremely wealthy where girls have mysteriously disappeared for decades. In addition to the three female main characters, the island, with its woods and cliffs and mysterious hidden areas, becomes almost another character.

The story is told in third person narrative from the three girls’ points of view. Marion is new to the island. She and her sister Charlotte accompany their mother to the island after their father dies. Their mother has accepted a position as housekeeper to the wealthy Mortimer women who have a huge mansion and a horse farm. Marion’s family lives in a cottage on the property. Her first day on Sawkill Island, a horse runs away from her, throws her off on the other side of the island, and jumps off a cliff. Her life is not the same after that; she hears strange noises all the time.

Val’s mother is the head of the Mortimer family, who generation after generation keep the surname of the matriarch and the males in the family disappear. Val is everything lovely and patrician, but there is a darkness hiding underneath that soon shows its ugly head.

Zoey’s father is the chief of police, and she’s often shunned by the wealthy for many reasons including the darker color of her skin. But her boyfriend, Grayson, is loyal and ignores those who snub Zoey. She is bereft because shortly before the story begins, Val stole her best friend who was then killed by the mysterious and evil “Collector,” the entity that some blame for the disappearance of all the teenage girls, and Zoey has been convinced that Val has something to do with the disappearance of her friend.

No one talks about the evil being on the island. It’s more of a rumor and mythic tall tale — a mysterious entity who kills young girls and lives for centuries. But when these three girls’ lives intersect, they are on a path to fight this creature to the death.

The story is beautifully told with a fourth voice — that of a benign presence on the island that represents good and the inner power of the earth. Legrand’s characters are all quite different in many ways, but in the way that counts — their desire to fight evil — they are very much alike. And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson in this story — that it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or not, straight or gay, fat or thin — what matters is what you decide to do when important things are at risk. Will you fight for what is right or will you hide your head and ignore the danger?

This is also very much a book about feminine empowerment. While there is a shadowy organization of men who try to hunt monsters like the one on Sawkill Island, they do so at the expense of the young girls. These three pull the curtain back on the cruelty and abuse by this male organization and decide to take the monster on themselves. Yet Legrand also provides two wonderful males who are supportive of the three girls, and Zoey’s boyfriend is happy to bake cookies and help his “superhero” girlfriend fight evil.

This is certainly a young adult book with some mature scenes including violence and sex, but middle school and high school readers — and older readers — will appreciate the characters, the action, and the horror. Gender stereotypes are torn apart, girls save the day, and forgiveness trumps betrayal.

It’s a quick read simply because the reader will want to know how it all turns out. This novel is engrossing and thrilling and, at the end, extremely satisfying.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books, for review purposes.

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