This novel begins with the backstory that three years earlier, 5-year-old Madison Culver had disappeared when on a family trip into Oregon’s Skookum National Forest to select a Christmas tree. Her parents have tried every avenue to find her, and now have hired Naomi Cottle. Naomi is known as “The Child Finder” – she has been in the business of looking for missing children for 8 years, since she was 20. Naomi has found over 30 kids, not all of them alive. But the Culvers, like other parents of missing children, are desperate for closure of any kind.
Naomi has a sense about missing children because she used to be one herself. Most of her memories are blocked, however; just fragments come to her at night in what she calls “the big dream” and they concern only her escape from captivity at around age 9 (she doesn’t know for sure); not what preceded it.
Naomi had been found naked and running by a group of migrant workers, who took her to the sheriff in Opal, Oregon. He in turn handed her over to the foster care of Mrs. Mary Cottle. Mrs. Cottle was also fostering a boy Naomi’s age, Jerome.
Years later, Naomi is now dealing with the impending death of her foster mother, who nourished Naomi and Jerome, allowing them to feel relatively protected under her roof. But in fact, Naomi always felt that “[t]he most dangerous wilderness felt safer to [her] than a room with a door that locked from the other side.”
She also faces increasing pressure from Jerome to confront their feelings for each other. Jerome admires Naomi’s strength, but saw her “like the wind traveling over the field, always searching, never stopping, and never knowing that true peace is when you curl around one little piece of something. One little fern. One little frond. One person to love.”
Naomi is brave when it comes to her relentless search for children, but not brave enough to risk the vulnerability that comes from love.
Because Naomi knows how terrifying the experience of captivity was for her – so much so that her sole awareness of it comes from vague nightmares, she is much more persistent than local authorities, who are constrained by lack of manpower and resources. And because Naomi grew up in her foster home not far from the same area as Madison Culver went missing, her dreams begin to have more detail. She understands that she might actually find out what happened to her.
Chapters narrated by Naomi alternate with those by Madison, who thinks of herself as “The Snow Queen” after a fairy tale she heard when she was little. Like Naomi, her time in the past – as Madison – only comes to her in dreams, or in the form of stories in her head that she doesn’t think are true. She is held by a person she only knows as “Mr. B.,” who eventually takes over some of the narration as well.
Good pacing and lots of tension build up to the denouement and the eventual outcome, which is never a sure thing.
Discussion: While there are elements of very distasteful psychological, physical, and sexual abuse in this book, the author does her best to limit depictions of unpleasantness to the dream-like language and level of understanding of a young child. On the author’s website, we learn that she works with sex trafficking victims and also has been a foster adoptive parent herself for traumatized children. Clearly she knows of what she writes.
Evaluation: This well-written and absorbing psychological thriller is apt to keep you up at night.
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017