Suspicion and circumstance serve to decimate a Wisconsin farm family in this memorable debut by Paula Treick DeBoard.
A typical rural family, the Hammarstroms run a 160 acre dairy farm. The grandfather, a widower, lives on the farm in his own small house. Living in the big, main house are John, the hard-working farmer father, the mother who works as a nurse, and their three children.
Johnny who is seventeen, helps his Dad on the farm and is a high school wrestling champ with college prospects. Emilie, the middle sister, is popular at school and is in the band. And… our narrator, the youngest daughter, is nine year old Kristen. Short for her age and into books and spelling bees, Kristen adores her father and big brother. When she meets a beautiful schoolmate of Johnny’s she has a ‘girl crush’, so typical of girls her age who look up to an older, popular, and pretty girl.
When this girl, Stacy Lemke starts going out with Johnny, the reader realizes that this relationship can only be termed unhealthy. Stacy is rich, spoiled, intense, and obsessive. Johnny spends all his free time with Stacy, much to the detriment of his male friendships and his schoolwork. Then, when Stacy goes missing after a date with Johnny one stormy winter night, the family are persecuted by the press, reviled and ostracized by their neighbors and friends, and find their lives forever changed.
Seen through the eyes of Kristen, their story is poignant and unsettling. Excluded from many of the ‘adult’ conversations, she experiences the traumatic event as both an insider and an outsider. She sees the family she adores being torn asunder by suspicion and she finds herself shunted to the background and feels insignificant in the light of the family’s more pressing problems. Riddled with doubt and feeling guilty, Kristen wonders if life will ever again be ‘normal’. Rightly so, as events serve to steal her childhood and her family’s stability.
Years pass, and we meet the grown-up Kristen who is on her way home from California in the wake of another family tragedy. Old betrayals, family loyalty, and a sixteen year old mystery will all come in to play.
Written with an evocative sense of place and time, this debut novel doesn’t read like one. Tragedy and heartbreak are skillfully rendered. The author has realistically and emphatically portrayed a family crisis and the resulting aftermath in this domestic drama. The characters were richly drawn and memorable making this book a must read for those who prefer a character-driven story. The setting was written with just enough description to make the reader feel that they are immersed in the story. The resolution of the book was a tad too predictable, but didn’t mar the overall feeling of having read a solid debut. I’ll gladly read any future books by this accomplished author. Recommended!
Paula is a reader, writer, drinker of strong coffee and an all-around slave to public education. An English major, she has taught junior high and high school English, and earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Southern Maine.
These days, she splits her time between teaching (at the University of California, Merced), chatting about writing whenever she has a chance, and doing the writing itself. Her novels include The Drowning Girls (coming April 2016), The Fragile World and The Mourning Hours.
She lives in Modesto, California with her husband Will and their canine family.