Sunday, May 29, 2011

Missing Children: Two Different Takes

John Hart's The Last Child and Lee Martin's The Bright Forever both have at the center of their stories a girl gone missing after returning books to the local library. They both resonate with the reader but in different ways. Both are compelling books, but the authors take very divergent paths with their narratives.

The Last Child is mainly a suspense story. Alyssa Merrimon went missing when she was twelve, and a year later her twin brother Johnny is still looking for her. He refuses to believe she's dead even after all these months, and he often skips school to canvas neighborhoods and keep tabs on known sexual predators. He's meticulous in his search, even more so than the local police. His father took off under the strain of having a missing child, and his mother has fallen apart. The only person Johnny feels he can trust is his best friend Jack. Detective Clyde Hunt keeps his eye on Johnny as he feels responsible for being unable to keep his promise to Mrs. Merrimon and bring Alyssa home.  

The Last Child, while mostly a suspenseful mystery, is also full of heart. Detective Hunt has developed feelings for Mrs. Merrimon, Johnny's mom realizes she has to gather her strength in order to support her son, friend Jack has his own demons chasing him, and then there's Levi Freemantle, the giant man Johnny literally runs into. Emotions are raw, life is violent. The bad guys tend to be two-dimensional and Johnny isn't totally likable, but if you root for any character, make it Mrs. Merrimon. No person, real or fictional, should have to deal with all the trouble she has. I had a feeling I knew who the ultimate bad guy was, but even still I was surprised at the twist the ending took.

For a completely different look at a missing child case, check out The Bright Forever. Katie's older brother tattles at dinner one night that she hadn't returned her library books yet, and they were due that day. So her father makes her take them back before closing time. Katie rides off on her bicycle, barefoot, and never returns. Yes, there is suspense here because author Lee Martin takes his time spinning out the tale of what happened to Katie, but he also gets in the head of several major players. This is more a tale of what happens to the family that is left to wonder what befell their child and to deal with the not knowing. This is also a tale of how a person, a man in this case, might be driven to abscond with a little girl and kill her. Themes of guilt and loneliness resonate in almost every character's viewpoint. Actions are not excused but rather are explained. In the end, the person who feels most guilty does accept responsibility for not stopping events when he had the chance, but he still realizes his life and the lives of Katie's family members were forever altered.

The Bright Forever is an idyllic, almost sweet story. It is set in the sweltering summer of Indiana in the early 1970s. Life seems innocent and perfect, at least on the outside. Even with the undercurrent of Katie's disappearance, there is no violence, no bad language. Only towards the end when Katie's dad finds himself making a choice he he never thought he'd have to face does any blood flow. Then, too, when we find out what happened to Katie is there more blood.

The narrative is told in the first person by several characters, which is nice because the reader feels a part of the story. We get to find out what each person is thinking and feeling and why they do what they do. However, there are also sections told in third person, and I found that jarring. It's hard enough keeping track of each voice, remembering who "I" is. Then you get a more objective view of the action, and for me at least, I was pulled out of the story a few times because I had to adjust my mindset. One character talks directly to the reader as if he is writing the book, and I also tend not to like that device much, but it does give the story a sense of conversation and of truthfulness, as if the character is confessing a deep, painful secret.

If you like your books to be gritty, pick up The Last Child. If you want more of a character study, try The Bright Forever. In either case, you won't easily forget them.

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