THE CHILD FINDER: a page-turning mystery and thought-provoking exploration of suffering and redemption

  

The Child Finder

By Rene Denfeld

HarperCollins Publishers

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.

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Rene Denfeld: Writing the Truth About Criminals

rene-denfeld-bw  The Enchanted

In The Enchanted, several of the main characters are men who committed horrific crimes. They wait on Death Row, for execution.

I’ve been asked how I created characters of such horror and yet humanity. How do we understand the terrible harm someone can commit, and still see them as a person?

Too often, authors writing about violence want to make the criminal The Other. The typical rapist or murderer in literature is depicted as a monster, devoid of any humanity: he is without a soul.

It is a comforting portrayal, because it tells us he cannot be one of us. He cannot be our coach, our pastor, or our brother. We can rest easy, knowing we did not create him: our culture and our society are not to blame. He is a bad seed that fell from a faraway tree. Nothing to worry about, people: Move along.

But there are problems with this approach. By “othering” the criminal we “other” the victim as well. She becomes a bit player in a false story, a device that exists to be hurt: the unfortunate weed that sprang from the bad seed. At best she evokes pity. At worst she is fodder for voyeuristic entertainment, her blood-splattered body the titillation in many a genre novel.

We also induce lethargy. If criminals are unrepentant monsters, incapable of change, then there is no way to prevent them.

But what happens if we try to understand the criminal? What happens if we open our hearts to his truths? We can see the poison. We can see the rage. Such terrible rage. Where does that rage come from?

Those are the questions we begin to ask.

And by asking those questions, we delve into complex and important realities about crime. We grapple with poverty, abuse, and neglect. We ask ourselves about the impact of domestic violence and how a tenderhearted boy becomes a violent man. We wonder why some people survive horrible childhoods and others succumb to hate. We begin to think about racism and oppression. We see the awful cycles of revenge and war in people and nations in a new light. We ponder forgiveness and consider redemption.

Violence stops being a narrative abstract, committed by a fictional boogeyman. It is real. Real people hurt each other.

Real people get hurt.

When we tell the truth of a criminal, we tell the truth of a crime. And when we tell the truth of a crime we begin to understand why it happens, and what can be done to stop it.

That is when we begin to find hope.

Rene Denfeld is the author of The Enchanted (2014), which won a prestigious French Prix award, and was named an Oregonian Best Books of the Year, Powell’s Top 5 Books of the Year, Foyle’s Best Fiction of the Year, and an Indie Next Pick. It was also given a Texas Lariat and ALA Notable Books Award for Excellence in Fiction, and was a finalist for the esteemed Flaherty-Dunnan Prize sponsored by the Center for Fiction. Denfeld lives in Portland, Oregon with her three children, all adopted from foster care. By day she works with men and women facing execution—the inspiration behind The Enchanted.

THE ENCHANTED casts a spell in spite of Death Row setting

The Enchanted  Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted

By Rene Denfeld

Harper Perennial, 2014

$14.99, 233 pages

There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the residents of a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel.

But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. It is one of those books for which a description or summary pales in comparison to the, well, enchantment experienced by reading it. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation on finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.

In her first novel after three non-fiction works on widely varying subjects, Denfeld makes use of her background as an investigator hired by death penalty case attorneys in Oregon to research the lives of convicts in an effort to obtain a sentence of life in prison without parole. But The Enchanted is not a polemic about the death penalty or the criminal justice system. It is a story about people and the difficulty of their lives and the decisions they must make.

The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. Death Row is located in the dungeon-like basement, and the residents rarely see the sky, much less experience moments outside their windowless cells.

The prisoner, identified only in the last pages of the book, tells us, “The outside is too big and scary for me to think about anymore. The outside is one wild circus where people and ideas clash. I have been inside one locked room or another since I was nine. I am accustomed to it, buried inside rooms that are buried inside other rooms that are buried inside electric razor fences. The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs.”

Yet he is well aware that his desire to remain on Death Row rather than among the general prison population separates him from the other residents of the Row. “No, the dream of the death row client is to escape execution for a life behind bars. They want to escape the dungeon into the rest of the prison. They want a visit from their mom that involves a touch. They want to stand in the sun, to play a game of ball, to eat at a table with other men, to see the sky and feel the wind. THose are their dreams, maybe small to others but huge to them. It is a modest dream, in a sense, and yet one that is amazingly hard to achieve for a man on death row.”

The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of.

“There are some things I can never discuss. One is the bad thing I did after I was released from the mental hospital when I was eighteen. I wouldn’t want the idea of this thing to be in the world. Ideas are powerful things; we should take more care with them….You can get a taste of an idea inside you, and the next thing you know, it won’t leave. Until you do something about it. As soulless as I am, I do not want others to do what I have done. Some ideas need to stay silent inside me, like the letters inside some words.”

The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation.

The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out. He carries a personal burden that reminds him of the value of life and inescapable sadness of death.

The plot has several strands, all of which Denfeld has woven together seamlessly. We follow the lady’s investigation into York’s childhood, one of unimaginable abuse, which provides context for the monster he became. Denfeld reminds us that even monsters, whether Grendel or York, were once like us, that monsters are made, not born, and that others are also culpable for their eventual brutality. This is not to excuse their crimes, but only to explain and understand them — and perhaps prevent others from occurring.

We learn about the lady’s own past, which bears surprising similarities to that of York and explains the motivation behind her work. We explore the incident that led the priest to his current circumstances. And the narrator reveals his own heart-rending story in bits and pieces.

Part of the magic of The Enchanted is that, despite the difficult subject matter, it is filled with moments of beauty, insight, and compassion. The gift of this novel is that it finds inspiration and promise among the broken lives and hearts of those who live and work in the prison.

In particular, Denfeld’s writing glows with a spiritual impulse that often produces sentences and even paragraphs of sublime beauty. Although her background is in non-fiction, Denfeld writes with the power and persuasion of a poet on fire with the joys that can be found in both life and language.

At one point the prisoner/narrator reacts to the language of the guards. “I retreat from my bars, wondering why people who live outside choose such ugly words. Maybe that is what happens when you are outside, and the world clangs and barrels and shouts twenty-four hours a day, from your radio your television your wife your neighbor the lawn mower down the street and the scream of airplanes from the sky. Maybe then you use ugly words to tell life to shut up.”

It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.

Don’t allow the subject matter of The Enchanted to deter you from reading it. It will cast its spell on you and leave you both moved and deeply philosophical. You won’t soon forget the people you will encounter in these pages.

Rene Denfeld: Writing the Truth About Criminals

Rene Denfeld  The Enchanted

In The Enchanted, several of the main characters are men who committed horrific crimes. They wait on Death Row, for execution.

I’ve been asked how I created characters of such horror and yet humanity. How do we understand the terrible harm someone can commit, and still see them as a person?

Too often, authors writing about violence want to make the criminal The Other. The typical rapist or murderer in literature is depicted as a monster, devoid of any humanity: he is without a soul.

It is a comforting portrayal, because it tells us he cannot be one of us. He cannot be our coach, our pastor, or our brother. We can rest easy, knowing we did not create him: our culture and our society are not to blame. He is a bad seed that fell from a faraway tree. Nothing to worry about, people: Move along.

But there are problems with this approach. By “othering” the criminal we “other” the victim as well. She becomes a bit player in a false story, a device that exists to be hurt: the unfortunate weed that sprang from the bad seed. At best she evokes pity. At worst she is fodder for voyeuristic entertainment, her blood-splattered body the titillation in many a genre novel.

We also induce lethargy. If criminals are unrepentant monsters, incapable of change, then there is no way to prevent them.

But what happens if we try to understand the criminal? What happens if we open our hearts to his truths? We can see the poison. We can see the rage. Such terrible rage. Where does that rage come from?

Those are the questions we begin to ask.

And by asking those questions, we delve into complex and important realities about crime. We grapple with poverty, abuse, and neglect. We ask ourselves about the impact of domestic violence and how a tenderhearted boy becomes a violent man. We wonder why some people survive horrible childhoods and others succumb to hate. We begin to think about racism and oppression. We see the awful cycles of revenge and war in people and nations in a new light. We ponder forgiveness and consider redemption.

Violence stops being a narrative abstract, committed by a fictional boogeyman. It is real. Real people hurt each other.

Real people get hurt.

When we tell the truth of a criminal, we tell the truth of a crime. And when we tell the truth of a crime we begin to understand why it happens, and what can be done to stop it.

That is when we begin to find hope.

Rene Denfeld is the author of The Enchanted (2014), which won a prestigious French Prix award, and was named an Oregonian Best Books of the Year, Powell’s Top 5 Books of the Year, Foyle’s Best Fiction of the Year, and an Indie Next Pick. It was also given a Texas Lariat and ALA Notable Books Award for Excellence in Fiction, and was a finalist for the esteemed Flaherty-Dunnan Prize sponsored by the Center for Fiction. Denfeld lives in Portland, Oregon, with her three children, all adopted from foster care. By day she works with men and women facing execution—the inspiration behind The Enchanted.

Watch for my review of The Enchanted later this week.