Reviewed by Becky Benoit
A parent’s list of worst fears is long and terrifying. From the moment our children are born, we worry about what could go wrong. A serious illness, a tumble off a bike, running with scissors…the possible calamities are enough to cause any parent to shiver.
But most of us would admit that the possibility that your child might be abducted by a stranger tops the list. No matter how remote the possibility, we all hold tight to our children’s hands when we’re in a crowded store, and watch with trepidation as they set off on their first unaccompanied trip to the store.
Parents of missing children never give up hope that they might one day see their lost little ones again, despite the odds. Their anguish, coupled with fierce determination, keeps their children’s disappearances alive, even as media interest wanes and the pubic moves on to new tragedies.
For many of these parents, their stories have no happy ending. Their children remain as faces frozen in time, their past, present and future a question mark.
But occasionally, there are miracles. Against all the odds, long-lost children sometimes return, found in unlikely places, and are reunited with parents weeks, months, even years after they disappeared. The public cheer, headlines blaze and the world celebrates as the lost child returns to the bosom of a grateful family. The sad story now has a happy ending, complete with, “…and they lived happily ever after.”
Is this really the case? What happens after the long-lost child is returned to their family? Does the family’s story simply pick up right where it left off? How does the trauma and heartbreak of the intervening years impact this fairytale ending?
In Rosalind Noonan’s latest, And Then She Was Gone, a family struggles with just such heartache, when a long-lost child, missing for six years, is suddenly discovered and returned home.
The day Lauren O’Neil disappeared was the day time stopped for her family. Walking home from school on her own, shy but artistically talented Lauren stops to admire a hummingbird in a neighbour’s yard. When her abductor, disguised as a deliveryman, snatches the girl, her family is devastated, but determined to find her.
Searches are mobilized immediately all around their hometown of Mirror Lake. Groups of searchers wade through bushes and swamp, scouring farms and abandoned houses. The police follow up every possible lead, but as the days and weeks pass by, it seems the girl has simply vanished without a trace.
As the years pass, Lauren’s parents Rachel and Dan remain committed to finding their child. Rachel, a teacher, puts her career on hold and dedicates her life to the search, building an elaborate website, planning awareness events and ensuring her daughter’s name has not been forgotten.
Nearly lost in the shuffle is Lauren’s younger sister, Sierra, only 6 years old when her sister disappeared. While Rachel and Dan do their best to give Sierra a normal childhood, they struggle to allow her the normal freedoms that all children want, terrified by the possibility that lightning could strike twice in the same place. While her overprotective parents keep her close, Sierra also feels like the invisible child, living an overlooked existence in the long shadow her absent sister.
Six years after she disappeared, Lauren is returned. Police arrest a local man with a history of violence against girls and women, and are stunned to discover Lauren O’Neill secreted away on his farm, only a few miles from her former home. But Lauren is a much-changed girl. Answering to the name “Sis,” a nickname given to her by her abductor, Sis is a very different person from the quiet, artistic 11-year old who disappeared so many years ago.
Sis bears the scars, both physical and emotional, of years of rape and physical abuse. Pregnant at age 12 and a mother by age 13, Sis is still reeling from the sudden death of her daughter, a child born in the squalor of her prison whom she named MacKenzie. Three-year old Mac died under mysterious circumstances, and Sis is still attempting to come to terms with her loss as she confronts the family she lost so long ago.
Rachel and Dan are devastated when, far from being overjoyed at seeing her parents again, Lauren seems to want nothing to do with her own family. Lauren is suspicious of the people who she has been told abandoned the search for her long ago. Instead, Lauren clings to her rescuers, the social workers who first brought her out of captivity, while her parents struggle to rebuild the bond with their oldest child, the girl who has been missing for so long…and remains so, even when she’s back under their roof.
This book was riveting. As a parent, the fear of a stranger taking my child always hovers in the back of my mind as I watch my own girls take their first steps towards independence and away from me. I can’t imagine the heartache that tears families apart when children disappear. I’ve never given much thought to what happens after a child is returned, simply choosing to rejoice in the happy ending reported by the media.
Noonan does an admirable job of exploring the terrible aftermath of a disappearance, the wounds that leave unfixable scars on a family as they mourn the loss of their child, hoping always for a miraculous return while trying to pick up the pieces and move on into a completely changed reality. She plumbs the dark emotional depths of rape, emotional and physical abuse, and the lengths the human soul must go to heal even when the horrors of the present have been extinguished.
A must-read for your list of summer books!