The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste
Publisher: JournalStone | Release Date: Nov. 16, 2018 | Pages: 218
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Rust Maidens is my first venture into the writings of Gwendolyn Kiste, and I have to say, I'm completely blown away! This novel, like many others I've been reading lately, is not outright horror. It has a distinct underlying theme that is masked by the horror element in the novel. When that theme pulls down its mask to reveal its true self and intention, it can be more terrifying than what we were initially anticipating. In this particular work, a gigantic metaphor is lurking underneath, waiting to usher in a wake up call of sorts to our society, and the roles women play, or are "allowed" to play in it. Women today are making leaps and bounds in almost every facet of our world. Living the "American Dream". This book begs the question- What happens to the women left behind?
It's the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, Phoebe and her cousin/best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school and can't wait to leave their dead end, westside neighborhood behind. Phoebe has long dreamed of leaving Denton Street, and college is her way out. But that summer, in the wake of a strike at the steel mill where all of their families work, the girls in Phoebe's neighborhood are becoming very sick. But this is not the flu. The girls bodies are changing in unusual and shocking ways. Their footprints leave behind dark water on the floor, their nails are turning to broken glass, and their bones are becoming like rusted metal beneath their thin, ashen flesh. Word spreads about the girls vile transformations, bringing tourists, curious clinicians, and even the government. But no one has any explanation for what is ailing these five young women. Phoebe makes it her mission to get to the bottom of what is hurting her friends, before she herself succumbs to their dire, impending fate.
This unsettling, beautiful, and atmospheric story was enjoyable, but immensely heartbreaking to read. The Rust Maidens was fast paced and completely absorbing, and I found it hard to put down. It is told entirely from Phoebe's point of view, 30 years after that fateful summer. She has returned to Denton street one last time before bulldozers and wrecking balls erase her memories of her youth. The point of view shifts between "current Phoebe" and "past Phoebe", and the time jumps were never skewed, I always knew which Phoebe was speaking and never felt any confusion. We get a good look at the Rust Belt setting where the story takes place and which plays an important and interesting role in the story, but I'll come back to that later.
I need to talk about Phoebe — I absolutely loved her! What a magnificent main character! She is incredibly relatable and I found she is a lot like I was at her age. She is not your typical sweet and innocent heroine. She is strong willed and strong minded, she speaks her mind, is not afraid to get in a fight, and has no problem going against the status quo. Since the story is told through her eyes I could feel her every hope and heartbreak. I experienced her desperation of losing her best friend and felt her fear of the possibility of her father losing his job at the mill. And the fear of never getting out of the dead end town.
Phoebe's character is an expertly written, sympathetic main character. Definitely one you are rooting for throughout the book. The adults are in a league of their own. Also well written and extremely unlikable. They are too busy with their sad dream of working in a mill slipping away, to even notice their own children's horrifying predicament. And when they do, they treat the girls with disgust rather than empathy. Almost as if the girls deserved it, completely missing that this was their own doing, but I'll come back to that in a second. The Rust Maidens, grotesque and monstrous as they may seem are not the villains in this story. They are the victims. Victims of circumstance. Born to parents who probably were not allowed to pursue their dreams, so they are starting a nasty cycle all over with their own children. And here is where I come to the ever looming metaphor of the story.
The term Rust Belt was given to cities in the 1980's that were experiencing a rapid decline in industry. This left many people, sometimes whole families out of work. The families in The Rust Maidens are battling to survive this economic decline. Their American Dream is failing them and that's all the parents can think about. But who can blame them, we all need money to survive, it's a fact of life. But this is THEIR life, THEIR American Dream. Don't they want more for their children? A better life than they had? To chase their dreams? Their OWN American Dream? Not on Denton street. Leaving for college practically made Phoebe a traitor in her neighbor's eyes. She was getting out to live her dreams. But the other five girls were not. Instead of following their own path, their own dreams, they were each forced for one reason or another to stay in their industry fueled neighborhood, destined to follow in their parents monotonous footsteps of working in the mill, or some other meaninglessness nine to five job. This is where Kiste used her fantastic, evocative prose to create the Rust Maidens.
The five maidens were forced to suffer from what were, and still are, societal norms. They, in turn, manifest into their destiny, their future. As disgusting as they are, these pitiful souls are victims of a society that is telling them not to dream big, don't dream at all, do what is expected of you, stay in your lane. America's social pressures, pressures from people who were probably told the same thing, force girls to stay in their town, to wither and die on the inside while watching others succeed from the sidelines. These five girls, with a lack of hope and broken dreams, morph into the breaking down machinery that has employed their families, who are keeping them there in the first place. For example, in an attempt to flee their families, the maidens try to run to an abandoned mansion nearby only to collapse, their bodies breaking down, just like the machinery in the mill- unable to attain their dream of escape, to chase whatever dreams they dared to dream. The American Dream is lost to them.
Kiste's first full length novel shines a spotlight on how our society's ridiculously outdated expectations can turn its bright, hopeful, gifted young women into monsters and then damnning them for what they are forced to become. This is a fantastic coming of age tale with a cautionary warning to American society. America is full of Rust Maidens, women all across the country, in towns big and small, that we will never hear about. We might thank them as we grab our drinks at the gas station where we stopped on a road trip, or smile kindly at, just in passing, faces that are almost immediately forgotten. These women will just fade away, with no one to tell their story. To yell 'Hey! They were here!'. Phoebe was not going to let her Rust Maidens be forgotten, and with this wonderfully written, yet mournful tale, neither will Miss Kiste.