The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld is a haunting, richly atmospheric, and deeply suspenseful novel about an investigator who must use her unique insights to find a missing little girl.
When I read Rene Denfeld's first novel, The Enchanted, I was blown away. She has a talent for portraying damaged people in a way that inspires empathy—even in people that are guilty of terrible things—and this is a theme that also runs through the exquisite The Child Finder. Naomi finds missing children, and she’s good at it. After all, she’s a lost child herself.
In Naomi’s earliest memory she had been running naked across a strawberry field at night towards a fire crackling at the edge of the woods. A group of migrants were in a clearing, a wet baby against a lap. A voice like a ghost came from the smoky campfire:
Dear God, look at that. Come here, honey.
Someone was wrapping her in a soft blanket, wiping her face with a warm, soothing cloth.
What are we gonna do?
They cleaned and fed her and wrapped her in a well-worn serape that smelled of sweat and comfort, and she crouched, shivering, all eyes, by the side of the fire. There had been fireside talk, low and fretful.
It’s decided then. We’ll take her to that sheriff. Come here, sweetheart, you can lie next to me.
But Naomi was too afraid to sleep. She crouched by the dying fire until her feet grew numb, her eyes tracking the forest.
The next morning, nearly catatonic with shock, she was put in a truck, still wrapped in the serape. The wind coming through the window lifted her hair with the sweet promise of tomorrow. She had escaped. She was free.
Everything after that she remembered. Everything that came before was lost. She had blanked it all out. It was as if she was born at that moment, free of all memory. Perhaps, she thought, what had happened to her was too terrible to remember. All she had were the dreams, and their awful hints of what she had suffered.
Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life. In the years since, she had discovered the sacrament of life did not demand memory. Like a leaf that drank from the morning dew, you didn’t question the morning sunrise or the sweet taste on your mouth.
You just drank.
Naomi feels like her life began at that moment, and in that, she’s much like Madison Culver, who went missing three years ago at the age of five. Naomi has been hired by her parents to find her.
A separate narrative follows Madison’s story, who was kidnapped by a man she calls Mr. B and held in his remote cabin in the Oregon wilds. Madison thinks of herself as the snow girl, born the day she was kidnapped and thrown into a dark cellar. The original Madison only exists in the fairy tales that the snow girl tells herself to make the days bearable. Denfeld uses beautiful language to describe terrible situations, weaving a very, very dark fairy tale indeed.
For the longest time the snow girl stayed in the cave. It might have been some kind of cellar one time, but now it was a cave. It was small and perfect and dark.
She learned there was no such thing as time. There was only snow. It fell silently above her, sometimes lighter with spring rain, sometimes thick and heavy, but sooner or later it was there.
In the filtered dark she touched the mud walls as high as she could reach, feeling the burls of wet roots, smelling their strange, savage scent. She stood on the sleeping shelf and tried to reach the wood slats of the trapdoor above her, the boards hovering just out of reach.
She was often lonely, and cried. She huddled on the shelf, holding her knees, rocking herself—like an infant curled inside its mother. She pulled a piece of wood from the shelf and, feeling the dirt with her hands, carved words along the walls. She carved the letters deep, so she might remember. She drew pictures, too; creatures from another world, including a dog named Susie and a tall, nice man called Father.
On the dirt floor she drew a large shape called MOM. She lay down inside it, pretending it was hers. She cupped her body there, sucking her thumb like a baby.
Your heart will break early and often while reading this book. We follow Madison during her time with Mr. B, who subsists by selling the furs from the animals he expertly traps. He teaches Madison how to trap and track and the secrets of the forbidding, beautiful woods that surround them.
Mr. B’s hands were gentle—when he was setting the traps.
Snow girl like the delicate wire snares the best. They looked so beautiful hung in the saplings, like strings of saliva. Mr. B showed her how to use smaller showshoes to beat a false path, so that the animal would follow it right into the thin, elegant loops. The next day they might find a coyote there, snow dusting its jaws.
The metal claw traps Mr. B carefully opened and buried in the snow, and then they sprinkled the area with blood from the offal bucket. The animal would dig for the intoxicating scents, expecting to find a carcass, and instead find its foot in the trap. Snow girl liked to search for the foxes later, like delicate red scarves in the snow.
Madison does find some joy in her life despite the abuse she suffers, but she never stops hoping for escape—and Naomi never gives up trying to find her. Lest you think you know what kind of monster Mr. B is, don’t be so sure. The truth is deeply sad, and yes, it begs empathy from the reader.
As Naomi searches for Madison—with the help of a friendly park ranger and local sheriff—she also grapples with her own past and what it means to discover the truth of what happened to her as a child before she knew her foster mother and brother.
This novel reads like poetry paced as a thriller, and if Madison’s story isn’t hard enough to take, Naomi also takes the case of a missing baby belonging to a young autistic woman. Additionally, Jerome is in love with Naomi, and she’s in love with Jerome, but something is holding her back from plunging ahead. But Jerome won’t wait forever, and he longs to be with Naomi and help her in what she considers her calling.
Denfeld is an investigator for death penalty cases and has foster children of her own, giving her a keen and sympathetic eye toward the plight of foster children and the pain and trauma that they sometimes bring with them. This is as much Naomi’s story as it is Madison’s, and for all the awfulness and the pain, it’s ultimately a story of hope that will transform you if you let it. Never graphic, Denfeld’s lyrical writing mines the beauty found in the most harrowing of situations and affirms the human spirit and will to survive. Make sure you have tissues handy.
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