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BookcoverThe Child Finder
Rene Denfeld
Harper Perennial  2017

What can we say about a young woman who has no life apart from looking for lost children?  That mystery clears up soon enough when it is discovered that our protagonist, Naomi, the “child finder,”  is a lost child herself.  Her earliest memory is running naked through a strawberry field at night where she is found by a group of migrants who get her to help and eventually placed in foster care with a loving woman and her other foster child, a Native American boy, Jerome. Just what she was fleeing from is a blank to her.  

While Naomi’s own history slowly unravels, we follow her in pursuit of a little girl gone missing three years prior. All leads having come to a dead end, the parents turn to her in desperation.  It happened on a snowy, winter’s day when the family went looking for a Christmas tree.  One minute she was there, the next gone.  Although her body was never found, it is presumed she wandered off into the forest and died from the cold. While Naomi realizes this could be the case, she has a gut feeling the girl, who would now be eight, is still alive, and she devotes every waking hour to finding her, while working in an intriguing side case along the way.

Intertwined in the search narrative is the voice of the lost girl herself, held captive in a dark, dank cellar.  To cope, she calls herself the “Snow Girl,” and weaves a story—half her own, half taken from a book of her childhood fairy tales—of her reincarnation as a snow girl. 

I do not wish to give more away except to say that the intrepid Naomi in traipsing around the vast Oregonian mountainside encounters an array of backcountry characters as well as local law enforcement, showing that she knows perfectly well how to handle both the roughest and most cunning of them in her quiet, even way.

That is the bare-bones plot, but there is so much more to this exquisite novel. Denfeld is not only a mesmerizing storyteller, she is also a master prose stylish.  Whether it be the fantasy in the mind of the lost girl:

The snow girl could remember the day she was born.
     In brilliant snow she had been created—two tired arms out like an angel—and her creator was there. His face was a halo of light.
     He had lifted her, easily, over his shoulder.  He had an intense, warm, comforting smell, like the inside of  the earth . . . . From the man’s belt slapped long fur creatures. She watched their tiny claws clutch at the empty air above the swinging white snow. . .

or a descriptive landscape passage:

Deep into the forest the trees abruptly cleared, and Naomi was standing at the edge of a steep white ravine. At the bottom snow stared blankly back up at her . . . . Far across the way a frozen waterfall resembled a charging lion.  The trees were shrouded in white, a vision of the heavens. . .
the prose dazzles.  And one other thing:  Our protagonist, amidst all the darkness of past and present, carries a joy that is infectious. In the depths of the forest, "She could see tiny, red-throated birds on the snow. She could hear the loud, whapping sound of an owl in the dark trees . . . the forest was alive."  Her resilience, her determination, her delight in small, everyday occurrences pushes the narrative to new heights.  It will linger with you a long, long time.  J.A.

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