Three girls went into the woods. Only two came back, covered in blood and with no memory of what happened. Or did they?
Being fifteen is tough, tougher when you live in a boring-ass small town like Little Hope, California (population 8,302) in 1996. Donna, Rae and Kat keep each other sane with the fervour of teen girl friendships, zine-making and some amateur sleuthing into the town’s most enduring mysteries: a lost gold mine, and why little Ronnie Gaskins burned his parents alive a decade ago.
Their hunt will lead them to a hidden cave from which only two of them return.
As the police circle and Kat’s frantic mother Marybeth starts doing some investigating of her own, Rae and Donna will have to return to the cave where they discover a secret so shattering that no-one who encounters it will ever be the same.
I keep seeing Girls of Little Hope being compared to Stranger Things online, and although I see the similarities, for me the first comparison that came to mind was the interactive video game Life is Strange. The slightly unusual secluded American town with a rich history, rebellious teenagers united by friendship and a desire to escape the confines of their town – a town with dark undertones swept far beneath the surface. The town known as ‘Little Hope’, like the doomed Arcadia Bay, brilliantly sets the scene for the story that unfolds.
Sam Beckbessinger and Dale Harvorsen do a great job with Little Hope. The small town set just off the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by a vast forest, is a memorable setting for a story, and the lore of the town matches the location. I really enjoyed the newspaper extracts sprinkled within the story that would tell of the mythical untouched gold mine supposedly hidden close to the town, or of the Ronnie Gaskins murder trials. Every small town has its skeletons in the closet and Little Hope’s are both intriguing and relevant to character motivations within the story – the perfect mix.
Girls of Little Hope begins as a sort of detective mystery but explodes into something out of control. Be warned, there is a sharp edge to this story that will almost certainly cut you regardless of whether you are unprepared, or whether you naively think you are prepared. One chapter in particular switched from somewhat benign to entirely gruesome so quickly that I had to put the book down for a few minutes. The story is a sleeping beast that lulls you into a false sense of security before ensnaring you in its grasp. You won’t believe what you see. The second half of the book is a whirlwind of destruction, chaos and the connections that bind us together. Before anything else in Little Hope, there is friendship. A single word that carries importance worth way more than the sum of its parts.
At the heart of the story are Rae, Donna and Kat. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book the authors write that ‘Girls of Little Hope is a love letter to the teenage friends who helped us survive our own monstrous adolescence’, and this is certainly reflected in their relationships. I thought the book did a great job at exploring teenage friendships and its intricacies. Rae, Donna and Kat are easily distinguishable from each other and they all felt like equals both within the friendship group, and within the layout of the book that has chapters from each of their perspectives. There was no one main character, only together are they a whole.
With Kat missing, her chapters come through journal extracts written before her disappearance. As a result, we get a lot of chapters from the perspective of her mother Marybeth. The dynamic between Kat and Marybeth is a central one to the story and a fascinating strand within the vast web that is this novel. It is great reading the perspectives of both the mother and daughter through their separate chapters, getting both sides of the argument per se. Marybeth appears representative of everything Kat, Rae and Donna are fighting against, having grown up in Little Hope and lived there her entire life, but nothing in this story is as straight forward as that.
‘So maybe loving each other is the most radical political act of our lives’
Girls of Little Hope is a story that fights honourably against time itself for the one thing it values most of all: friendship. There is almost an inevitability to growing up and losing some of the people and values you held most dearly to you when you were young. Little Hope fights for the younger you, for the version of us all that valued friendship above all else and had wild dreams and even bigger aspirations. Whether the story wins that battle… that is for you to find out.