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Theiss shares reviews about missing people

By Staff | May 8, 2009

Sometimes it seems like every book I pick up has the same theme. Over the last few months, one theme has been how families cope with missing daughters and the last one is about a missing mother.

“Songs for the Missing” by Stewart O’Nan, published by Viking, tells the story of a family whose daughter goes missing and the repercussions her disappearance has on her entire network of family and friends.

During the summer between high school and college, Kim Larsen disappeared from her small Ohio town, leaving her family and friends in a state of confusion, then despair. As her parents and sister each deal with her disappearance and her friends at first reluctantly move on with their lives, Kim’s public and private life is revealed. During the two years it takes to resolve the mystery around her disappearance, each character in this story changes while Kim stays 18.

The story is told from the point of view of each of the characters, especially focusing on the mother who becomes super organized in her attempts to enlist the media and the community in the search for her daughter. The father must cope with his sense of failure to protect her and his disappointment when it is revealed that she was not his perfect little girl. Lyndsey, the younger sister, is an especially poignant character as she deals with the disappearance of her sister, but also the shadow that her beautiful sister had always cast over her role as the little sister. It is the story of what families of the missing must endure when a loved one disappears under mysterious circumstances.

“In Goldengrove” by Francine Prose, published by Harper Collins, when Margaret, the golden teenage daughter who is a talented singer, excellent student and loving sister to her younger sister, Nico, drowns one lazy summer day, the entire family as well as her boyfriend, Aaron, are profoundly upset. Margaret had a heart condition which no one understood the seriousness of, yet everyone feels guilt for “allowing” her death to happen. Her mother becomes dependent on anti-depressants, yoga and a friend – thereby escaping from her family. Her father disappears into the book he is writing, leaving Nico to fend for herself. She turns to Aaron, whom she feels is the only other person who truly knew her sister. This relationship is more than the 13-year-old Nico can handle.

In spite of these reactions to the tragedy, the message of the story is that loved ones do heal, though incompletely, from such a terrible loss. The story ends many years later when Nico is an adult with her own family and the listener realizes that we have been hearing the story not entirely from a young girl’s perspective, but also from a more mature woman who has learned from her experience. The story is told unsentimentally and it gives hope that the world does go on, but also explores the depth of the experience of loss.

In a change of setting, “The Good Parents” by Joan London, published by Black Cat, the story takes place in Melbourne, Australia. Maya de Jong is also 18, but she has left her small town to go to Melbourne and work for a man whose wife is dying. She begins an affair with him and then disappears. When her parents come to visit her, only her roommates are there to greet them. As they try to figure out what to do next, their stories and pasts come out and her mother must recall her own time as a “lost girl”. Unlike the other stories, in this one, we learn more about the parents than the child.

And the last book, “Sing Them Home” by Stephanie Kallos, published by Grove/Atlantic tells the unusual story of a family in a small town in Nebraska, settled by Welsh farmers. A young doctor Llewelyn and his wife Hope settle down to raise their three children. Hope, as the outsider, must accustom herself to some of the unusual Welsh ways, including week-long wakes where the newly deceased is sung to for days at a time before he is buried. When Hope’s increasing clumsiness reveals itself as the first symptom of MS, her children and husband adapt to her disability, including a love affair between Llewelyn and his nurse who also happens to be Hope’s best friend.

Hope disappears one day in a freak tornado and her body is never found. Her youngest daughter, Bonnie, becomes known as the “flying girl” because she was found tangled up in a fallen tree after the tornado. Bonnie stays in the small town living a curious life, running a smoothie stand and a bike store. Llewelyn’s sudden death from a lightning strike on a golf course brings Larkin, the oldest daughter an art appreciation professor and Gaelin, local weatherman in Lincoln, back home for the wake. The story focuses on each of these characters, their interrelationships and their grief independently through flashbacks and in the present as their lives change dramatically with their father’s death. Eventually the mystery of where their mother went is resolved to the reader, but never to the family. The story climaxes in another storm. The disappearance of the mother binds the children together for better or worse. This story is also available in an audio book published by Blackstone Audio and since the narrator gives a fully voiced reading of the main characters as well as many important minor characters, creating a uniquely Welsh Middle American ambiance.

No family ever fully recovers from the loss of a family member under mysterious circumstances, but these four books plumb the emotions and ramifications of these events very well.