The Child Finder
By Rene Denfeld
288 pages, $25.99
Rene Denfeld is a magician. Her debut novel, The Enchanted, was a spellbinding examination of life and redemption on Death Row, written with such poetry and grace that the somber subject matter not only did not weigh down the reading experience but instead actually lifted readers into spiritual territory.
The Child Finder confirms that her first book was no fluke. A snowbound calm pervades this story of Naomi, a private investigator who specializes in locating missing children. Three years earlier, five-year-old Madison Culver disappeared on a trip to choose a Christmas tree in the snowy forests of Oregon. When the official investigation fails to find Madison, her desperate parents turn to Naomi.
While this may sound like the plot of a genre mystery novel, Denfeld’s gifts turn it into something much more. Naomi’s involving search for Madison is also an exploration of her own past, which has one unanswered question: What happened to her in the time before her memories begin with running across a field at night, to be rescued by migrant workers and adopted by an older, single woman?
We know from the start that Madison is alive, the prisoner of a strange, silent mountain man who lives in the most isolated reaches of the Skookum National Forest. Who is he, how has he managed to live there for so many years without being discovered, what explains his kidnapping and imprisoning of Madison (after three years in his ramshackle cabin, it’s clear he does not intend to kill her)? None of the answers are predictable.
The Child Finder is told in dual narratives. One follows Naomi’s search (and its profound effect on her own inchoate memories) and the other depicts Madison’s unusual strategy for coping with her dire situation. Denfeld weaves the two strands tighter and tighter in a manner that put me in mind of both The Lovely Bones and The Silence of the Lambs.
The central question in The Child Finder concerns whether those who are lost can be found, and if so, how. Madison is lost to her parents and the outside world. And the lost child of Naomi’s past remains shrouded in dreamlike memory and self-protective denial. While Naomi seeks “the snow child” Madison, two men – one from her adoptive upbringing and the other from her investigation – attempt to “find” her. But so long as she is lost to herself, she can’t be found by others.
Rene Denfeld has avoided the sophomore slump with a novel that is both a page-turning mystery and a thought-provoking, literary exploration of long suffering and eventual redemption.