Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder reminded me of the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, a story I had heard on the news. I had avoided reading Smart’s account of her nine months in captivity in her book, “My Story,” but this fictionalized tale of a young girl stolen in the woods, abducted by a trapper who had once been a victim himself, revealed the horror and strength of missing children. Fiction can be as true as fact.
In 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in the middle of the night, kept chained and repeatedly raped. In Denfeld’s The Child Finder, a young girl, Madison, gets lost in a snowy wood in Oregon when she and her family are looking for the perfect Christmas tree to cut down. A deaf trapper finds her, almost dead from the cold, and hides her in the dirt cellar of his cabin in the woods. Madison survives by telling herself remembered folktales, and imagines she is now someone else, outside her own self and in the body of the Snow Girl, a fairytale she knows from before she was taken. Denfeld masks the horror of the sexual abuse and the beatings with the girl’s stories; her resilience and determination shine through the misery and offer hope for a rescue.
After years of fruitless searching, Madison’s parents hire Naomi, an acclaimed investigator and tracker with a reputation for finding lost children. Naomi, who escaped her abductors as a child, struggles with her own demons – a haunting past she only remembers in nightmares. As she pursues clues leading her to finding Madison, Naomi searches not only for the lost girl but also for her own lost identity.
Elizabeth Smart is the real life embodiment of a Naomi, transformed from victim to advocate. After her rescue in 2003, she rejoined her family and continues to work to restore her life. I look forward to meeting her soon at a book reading.
The Child Finder is not an easy read, but Denfeld uses her own experience as a Portland-based journalist and private investigator, as well as the adoptive mother of three foster children, to create a powerful and disquieting novel.