A haunted, decaying mansion. A cemetery that’s being disinterred. Dead souls that seem to come back to life and beckon to teenage twin sisters separated at birth. These are just a few of the wonderfully mysterious elements in Mirror Girls, Kelly McWilliams’ second YA novel.
As if slowly building terror and suspense weren’t enough, the book is also an exceptional work of historical fiction set in 1953 Eureka, Georgia. McWilliams’ genre blending works remarkably well, although perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the days of segregation and lynchings were a horror show. What better way to confront this era than with a horror story?
As in McWilliams’ first book, Agnes at the End of the World, two sisters narrate Mirror Girls. Charlie and Magnolia are born in 1936 to Marie, who is Black, and Dean, the wealthy white heir to Heathwood Plantation. Their young parents are murdered as they drive north to be married, leaving behind their infant daughters. Marie’s mother takes darker-skinned Charlie to live in Harlem, where she becomes a civil rights activist. Meanwhile, Dean’s mother raises light-skinned Magnolia as a privileged white Southern belle in their crumbling plantation. The girls have no idea about each other’s existence until Charlie brings her dying Nana back to Eureka, setting the plot explosively in motion.
Once Magnolia learns that she is Black, she realizes that she will have to choose between continuing to live a lie or embracing her heritage as well as her twin sister. Her choice becomes a matter of life and death: After Grandmother Heathwood dies, Magnolia is unable to eat, drink or see her own reflection in a mirror. This is an effective device; as Charlie notes, “It never ceases to haunt me—the unpredictable ways colored folk are reflected in a white eye.”
McWilliams is an excellent stage manager, pacing the action well and keeping the stakes high. The sisters’ alternating voices immerse readers in what life was like during Jim Crow for both white and Black people, and Magnolia’s emerging consciousness is especially well done. A few characters, including Grandmother Heathwood and Magnolia’s beau, Finch, sometimes seem stereotypical; however, even they ultimately have a few surprises up their sleeves.
Mirror Girls is a spine-tingling, empowering look at justice and civil action that urges readers to be aware, to be true to themselves and to take action. As Magnolia observes, “As twin sisters, white and Black, we are a symbol of coming victory. A promise of change.”