by Rebekah Benoit
This weekend, I came across an article that reminded me once again that the truth is stranger than fiction – or, at least, it’s pretty darn close.
Seventeen years ago in South Africa, a newborn baby was snatched from her mother’s sleeping arms as she dozed in her hospital bed. As the desperate search for baby Zephany stretched from days and weeks to months and years, the family never gave up hope that they might one day see their lost daughter.
Fast forward nearly two decades. Zephany’s sister Cassidy, born three years after her older sister’s disappearance, is startled by the striking resemblance she bears to another girl at her school. In fact, staff members and other students have also commented on how similar the two girls are in appearance, often remarking that they “could be sisters.” Cassidy eventually invites the older girl home to meet her parents, who immediately believe that the 17-year old girl is the daughter they’ve been searching for all these years. Sure enough, a DNA test soon confirms what the parents have known since the moment they set eyes on the girl – the child is the long-lost Zephany. A 50-year old woman has since been arrested and charged with kidnapping and fraud among other things.
The story seems to be something out of a fairy tale, complete with the perfect “…and they lived happily ever after” ending. But as I read the article, I had to wonder: what happens now? How does Zephany feel about being taken away from the woman she has known and loved as a mother since birth? How will she fit into her new family, while dealing with the grief and loss of her old one? How will her new family shift its shape to accommodate this long-lost daughter, and what bumps will this family’s strange new path offer along the way?
These questions put me in mind of one of my favourite books. It’s an oldie, but a goodie, as they say. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean launched Oprah Winfrey’s now-famous book club, and it has been acclaimed as one of the 10 most influential books of the past quarter century by USA Today magazine, credited with inspiring a generation of women to turn off the TV and read. When I first read this book, I remember loving the story but thinking that such a far-fetched tale could never really happen. A kidnapped child returned to his family years later by sheer coincidence? It seems impossible, but as this South African fairy tale has proven, the truth really can be stranger than fiction.
Beth Cappadora only looked away for a few seconds. That’s how long it took for her entire life to collapse. As the busy mother of two checks into a hotel, she asks her seven-year old to look after his younger brother, three-year old Ben. The two boys are only a few feet away in the crowded hotel lobby, and Beth’s attention is only away from them for a moment. But when she looks back, little Ben has disappeared. As worry turns into outright panic, a full-scale search is launched, complete with police and a command centre, but the toddler has simply vanished.
As days wear on into weeks and months, and the public’s initial fascination with the child’s disappearance, the Cappadora family tries to pick up the pieces and form at least a semblance of a life without Ben. Beth, buried in grief, guilt and despair, spirals into depression. Her husband struggles to support his wife and remaining son while dealing with his own feelings of grief and blame. Seven-year old Vincent is lost somewhere in the shuffle, full of shame and guilt over losing his little brother, and at the same time struggling to fill the giant hole left behind by Ben’s absence.
Nine years later, the family has regained a semblance of normality. Vincent, now a surly teenager, is struggling to find his own identity, the usual battles of adolescence made worse by the family’s troubled past. Once again, the family is thrown into utter chaos by a single moment. When Beth answers the door to a neighbourhood child wanting to do odd jobs for extra money, she’s stunned into immobility. Staring back at her, completely unaware of the connection, is the face of her missing child, now 12 years old. “Sam”, as he’s known, is once again the epicenter of the world’s attention, as Beth reclaims her lost child. The fairy-tale ending is more complicated than the headlines might suggest, however – Sam isn’t overjoyed to be reunited with his family; rather, he’s devastated at being wrenched away from the only father he’s ever known and unsure of the strangers that now surround him, calling themselves his family. The Cappadoras, who have worked so hard to create a new sense of normal, now have to start all over again as a different kind of family, while still struggling to come to terms with that terrible afternoon nine years earlier, which set all of the wheels in motion.
I loved this book the first time I read it. Mitchard skillfully explores the complex emotions that surround the disappearance of a child and a parent’s guilt at failing to take care of their family. Even though the story itself is a stretch in terms of realism (with the possible exception of one family in South Africa, who could likely identify a lot with these characters), the reader recognizes some familiar emotional terrain between the pages of this book. Every mother who has ever felt overwhelmed by the endless needs of her small children, who has let her attention lapse for a second and faced the consequences of that decision, can identify with Beth Cappadora. At the same time, Mitchard explores that scenario which really is every parent’s worst nightmare, the idea of losing your child, and digs deep into the complex emotions and less-than fairytale aftermath of such a scenario, long after the cameras have been turned off and the world has lost interest.
An emotionally complex and truly riveting read, this one deserves inclusion on any book club’s list of must-read throwbacks!