When I taught high school, particularly working with writing portfolios, I would occasionally come across a student's writing that spoke from the unimaginable situations they dealt with in their young adult lives, family and living situations that made me wonder how these students were able to function in any sense of normal at school, let alone do schoolwork and keep up. As Jess Lourey's book Unspeakable Things sets forth, there are those young people living so far outside "normal" that they must develop a defense system to survive it. If this book doesn't startle your awareness and break your heart, you need a checkup to make sure you have a heart. The time setting of this story is the 1980s, as it is based on true events that happened during the 80s in the Minnesota community of the author Jess Lourey, but it could have easily taken place today.
Cassie McDowell is a twelve-year-old girl struggling with an unconventional family life in which her unemployed sculptor father rules the family with his too often dark and unpredictable moods. On the outside, Cassie's presents a financially strapped existence, but a respectable one. Although her father doesn't bring in much money with his art, he is well-educated, and Cassie's mother is a high school English teacher, also highly educated. I pretty much spent the whole book despising both Cassie's parents. It would seem enviable to live on a farm with acres of wild to explore and fresh air to breathe in, but Cassie's parents use their distance from town and neighbors to an adult advantage, exposing Cassie and her older sister Sephie to adult situations way beyond their years. It's also easier for other people to pretend that the McDowell parents are just a bit free spirited, rather than unfit parents.
But, Cassie begins to have worries outside her home, beyond her fear of sleeping in her own bed. Boys her age, some younger and some older, are being taken. They are returned, but the boys are not the same as before. Something dark has crept into their lives and settled there. School is just letting out for the summer, and after the second boy is abducted, a curfew of 9 p.m. is set for the small town of Lilydale. Childhood is being interrupted by the sound of a siren every night, reminding everyone that boys are still being snatched. Some semblance of normalcy is sought, with birthday parties and swimming in the creek, and Cassie daydreams about the nice boy in her class who has actually spoken to her. But, when a boy is taken and not returned, the community of Lilydale must face the darkness of its own prejudices as it points fingers in predictable directions.
This book is a dark tale indeed, but the character of Cassie McDowell makes enduring that darkness bearable and rewarding. Cassie is an unforgettable hero who has the courage and perseverance that those around her, especially her parents, lack. She sees more clearly than others, partly because she is in the realm of those boys being abducted and partly because she hasn't yet taken on the blinders of adulthood. Her world has sharp corners, but she finds some comfort in her own inventions, like kitty clinic and the sheet game and writing stories from what she reads. She is a survivor, and I am the richer for having read her story.
Jess Lourey is an author who writes from the soul. Readers will feel the characters full force, embracing some and detesting others, but you will feel them. There is a preciseness in Lourey's description that seems to hit on just the right words, never superfluous, but always complete. The dialogue is a moving, flowing part of the narrative that shapes the characters into their parts and often is chillingly revealing.
It's interesting, to me at least, that Unspeakable Things was the first book I bought this year, but it was the last book I read this year. I can be obtusely wrong sometimes. I have a category in my Goodreads book listings that is entitled "why haven't I read this book yet." Well, I can't think of a book that better fits that category than Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey. I highly recommend that readers who have somehow missed reading this book thus far make it a priority to read it soon. You will be glad you did.