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 avoid in their engrossing new crime thriller, Wayward Girls. A dedication reveals the novel was “inspired by the well-documented horrors” at a wilderness school in Texas, Artesia Hall, where a female student died in 1972, and by 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—whom she’s estranged from. Farmer Max calls Camille too.
Jude is now an artist, making a reasonable living with sales of her paintings; Camille is a psychotherapist and college professor. Both women decide to make the trip to central Florida to witness the destruction. Camille digs out her journals, and the impressions of her fifteen-year-old self lead you into the girls’ difficult past.
The school is a giant, gothic-looking building with fake turrets and a tower in the middle of nowhere. 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. Jude’s therapist reported she had the “potential for violence” after Jude, provoked, shoved her. A “more structured environment” was recommended for them both.
Not that the Talbot students are angels. Warnings pass among them not to trust their housemother, Mrs. Dalfour, or Jack, the young handyman who spies on them. At least Camille is away from creepy Dr. Hedstrom. But he takes a part-time position at the school and keeps trying to insinuate himself into Camille’s life. Another new girl enters the mix: Wanda Ann Mosby, the wildest of them—loud and brash and undereducated.
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. Authors Matturro and Koepsel provide hints about the final tragedy 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.
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 characterization, without the depth you might want, and Dr. Hedstrom, especially, is too transparently awful. Nevertheless, I grew to care about Jude and Camille, about Wanda and Farmer Max and how they might escape Talbot’s influence.
Husbands’ ability to commit their unruly wives to a mental hospital in the 1800s is fairly well known. The cases that inspired Matturro and Koepsel show the continued vulnerability of young people, especially girls and women, to exploitation. And if you think society has finally extinguished the desire to control women through drastic means, you haven’t been following the sad saga of Britney Spears.