Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hodgepodge 318/365 - Book Report (The Child Finder)

Rene Denfeld, The Child Finder (2017) (9/11/17)

I basically shunned work yesterday and hunkered down on the bedroom couch, reading, reading this beautifully written page-turner. The mystery at the center is dispelled immediately: we know from the outset that a five-year-old girl, Madison, went missing three years ago in a desolate, snowy mountain region of Oregon, yet chapter 2 opens with that same girl, inside a "cave," "remember[ing] the day she was born" as "the snow girl." From there on out the story weaves back and forth between the snow girl's imaginings, and her interactions with the broken man who saved her from freezing to death, and the real-world hunt for clues and information by the "child finder," private investigator Naomi Cottle.

It turns out, of course, that Naomi has a checkered past (she did not become a child finder entirely by chance), with issues of her own to resolve. At the end of chapter 2 we learn: "Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life. In the years since, she had discovered the sacrament of life did not demand memory. Like a leaf that drank from the morning dew, you didn't question the morning sunrise or the sweet taste on your mouth. You just drank."

And of course too, it's not that simple. There are some things—like, human relationships—that she has has quite a bit of trouble drinking in.

The story also shifts between Oregon's forbidding mountains and the gentler valleys, where Naomi's foster mother and brother and Madison's parents live. As Denfeld explains in a Powell's Bookstore essay, "There is another Oregon [besides the wild, natural one we tend to think of], ignored by most writers because it tempers our ideals of our oasis. It is the Oregon of distilled poverty, a state where there are more prisons and jails than colleges; a place that incarcerates more blacks than Louisiana. Just as you can drive from desert to snow in one day, so can you drive from homeless camps in the city to abject poverty in the woods. Both Oregons exist, not side by side, but with hands linked." This more complex Oregon is a character in this book.

Just as the place is complex, so too are the people. "As a writer," Denfeld notes, "I want to dive deep. I want to show how we are all changelings, capable of good and bad—often at the same time—and yet how steadfast, too, as firm as the forgotten hills. I want to feel and touch the truth: how dangerous and wild those snowy mountains, where dozens go missing every year; how complex and human our souls, even those who have done the worst harm." And those who have had harm done to them as well.

So yes, it's the story of a quest, to find little Madison (and another missing child as well, a less hopeful scenario); but it's also the story of people filling in gaps in their psyches, by asking, by imagining, by remaining hopeful, by reaching out and trying to connect, by risking, by trusting. That's probably the bigger story. For us all.

It's not really giving anything away to quote the final paragraph of the book:
This is something I know: no matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found.
(That said, the last few pages of the book felt sentimental to me and I did not care for them. I also found some of the dialogue in the book a little cheesy. And as the initial quote above suggests, the lyric writing may obscure some harder emotional truths. But overall: a satisfying read.)

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