(nb: I received a review copy from the publisher)
"If You Find Me" grabbed me from the beginning, and probably won't completely let go for a few days.
That sounds like hyperbole, but there is something masterful in the way Emily Murdoch relates this simultaneously heartwarming and horrifying story.
Carey and Jenessa live in a tiny, ramshackle trailer in the middle of a huge Tennessee forest. Their mother, once a concert violinist, is now a meth addict, and she disappears for days and weeks at a time. Fourteen-year-old Carey has essentially been the only parent six-year-old Jenessa has ever known. Carey was the one who cooked beans, and shot and roasted squirrels and rabbits for them to eat, the one who washed their clothes in the nearby creek, taught Jenessa how to read and do math--all those things a normal mother would do.
Their mother was busy with her meth addiction. One way she funded that involved Carey. We know this, but we're not told exactly what it was; we're left to wonder just how bad things got.
Early in the book, two strangers come down to their camper. One is Carey's father, and the other is a lady from Tennessee's Department of Children's Services. They are there to take the girls "home." Carey doesn't want to go, until the DCS lady produces a letter from the girls' mother, admitting her drug problem and mental illness, and giving directions of where to find the trailer.
And so Carey and Jenessa are off to a world with indoor plumbing, electric lights, and plenty of food. They meet their father's wife, Melissa, and their new "sister," Delaney. Melissa welcomes them warmly and lovingly; Delaney is kind with Jenessa, but immediately icy and resentful toward Carey.
Immediately upon arrival, Jenessa finds herself a best friend: Shorty, the family's big friendly hound. Shorty is a big dog, who lost a leg when he got caught in a hunter's trap. Even that first night, Shorty sleeps protectively next to Jenessa.
Even though Janessa doesn't speak--selective mutism, the doctors called it--the girls both test two grades above their age group, and are sent off to school. Going from a camper in the woods to a giant public high school overwhelms Carey, though she manages to make a friend or two her first day.
Even as she works to fit-in among her new family and her new school, there is always something a little haunted about Carey, a little secretive. Like breadcrumbs, we find small tidbits of information that lead us to the conclusion that something truly horrible happened in those woods, and that this event is what haunts Carey and caused Jenessa to stop speaking.
Jenessa acclimates more easily to the new world than does Carey. One day, when Jenessa's beloved Shorty goes missing, Carey prays to St. Joseph "The Patron Saint of Beans"--the only Deity she had in the woods--and promises that she will tell her father everything that happened if only Shorty is alive and okay. Almost instantly, her father comes tramping from the edge of their farm, with Shorty in his arms. They rush the dog to the vet, where his wounds are stitched, and his body temperature raised. Carey is relieved for her sister's sake.
She also keeps her promise. She and her father drive back to the secluded woods where the girls lived. As they drive, we relive that terrible night through Carey's flashback. When they get back down to the tiny dilapidated camper, Carey tells her father the story. He reacts with shock that his daughter had to endure this, but with recuperative love, and reassurance that she won't have to face this alone any longer. We sense there may be some difficult times ahead for Carey, but we're left knowing that she'll be okay.
This novel would not have worked as wonderfully had it not been told in Carey's voice. Through her narration, we can sense that she revels in her safe, warm new home, with plenty of food and new clothes, but there is still an undercurrent of distrust. Part of her remembers her drug-addled mom telling her that her father used to beat them up, and that's why they fled. Carey knows her mom was nuts, but she still looks for signs. She distrusts that her new family will want to keep her--they obviously love Jenessa, but if Carey's secret gets out, she's convinced she will be sent away to an orphanage. And when a boy at school tries to be her friend, she distrusts his intentions. Through all these things, though, runs a ribbon of hope. Carey wants it to work out, but this thing inside her eats away at her soul.
"If You Find Me" is one of the most beautifully written, moving novels I've read in a long time. Through her narration, Carey shows both intelligence and maturity beyond her year, but it's obvious that this maturity was earned through a life no child should have to bear. We hear her strength, as well as her fear.
In many ways, Shorty is a perfect metaphor for Carey: both of them are smart and fiercely protective of Jenessa, and both have been permanently, horribly damaged by something bad that happened in the woods. Shorty has adapted well; will Carey be able to do so?
The most brilliant thing about "If You Find Me" is the way we know something horrible happened from the beginning. It always covers Carey like a haze. Once she lets go of this poison she's been keeping inside her, maybe that haze will blow away.
There's an adage that "God always looks out for fools, drunks, and little kids." In Emily Murdoch's spectacular debut, we find that this came true for two particular little girls living in a decrepit camper in the Tennessee woods. Even if these little girls called Him St. Joseph, The Patron Saint of Beans, they have finally been looked out for.