I have a love-hate relationship with missing child stories. On one hand, they’re incredibly hard to read. How do you even survive any of that? On the other hand, it’s like a bruise I can’t stop poking at (I blame growing up with Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train blaring on MTV, the pictures of missing children and teenagers running on a loop on the screen every few hours during my early teen years). The Nowhere Child by Christian White (Affirm Press, 2018) ended up on my list as soon as I learned about it; a missing child, a multi-continental story, a weird religious group…yup, I was in.
A strange man shows up in Kim Leamy’s Australian town one day, making claims that she’s not who she thinks she is: she’s actually Sammy Went, who went missing from a small Kentucky town almost thirty years ago. At first, Kim finds his story ridiculous (her late mother, a kidnapper? Hardly)…but then things start to add up, and her stepfather very obviously knows more than he’s saying. When the man reveals himself to be Kim’s biological brother, she knows she needs to figure this all out, so it’s off to America to learn the truth.
The Went family already had deep cracks by the time Sammy was born; father Jack had tried to bury his attraction to men, but that wasn’t working out so well; mother Molly’s fierce devotion to the snake-handling church Jack grew up in and has since abandoned is dividing everyone in the family and pushing Jack even further away. When two-year-old Sammy goes missing, long-hidden secrets come to light, but it’ll take decades before the truth really comes out.
This is a really solid thriller, one that involves a dangerous cult whose devotion to remaining ‘other’ costs lives. Complicating everything are Jack’s sexuality in a time and place that refuses to understand it and thus his need to keep it hidden, teenager Emma’s difficulty with her parents, and, in the current-day sections of the narrative, Kim’s piece-by-piece uncovering of the reality of who she is and how small-town secrets conspired to keep the truth of Sammy’s disappearance under wraps for so long.
The book goes back and forth in time, switching from third person narration by various characters, to first person narration by Kim. This keeps the story moving, but it also serves well to keep the reader on edge, guessing about what really happened, who was really involved, and why. I’m usually pretty bad at figuring out whodunit, but I had this one kinda pegged early on, though the why of it all wasn’t fully fleshed out in my mind until the full explanation appeared in the book. I enjoyed following the characters on their journeys. There are some surprises here, but all in all, this was a good, solid, enjoyable read.