A child with Down syndrome gets lost in Desolation Wilderness in the high country west of Lake Tahoe on a family day hike in early autumn. Like most kids, Maggie enjoys hiding in the house from her parents. She's a particularly gifted, stubborn hider. So saying she "got lost" -- as if she'd become disoriented and couldn't locate the whereabouts of her older brother and parents as they picnicked beside an alpine lake in the crisp Sierra Nevada air, isn't exactly accurate, since Maggie got "lost" on purpose. All it took was a second when her father turned his attention toward a lodgepole pine, the kind of pines most common at this high altitude, to discreetly pee behind. Maggie, more observant than most in her life realize, takes off at the chance, wandering cross country in just a minute into the rugged terrain to play her favorite game, hide-and-go-seek.
But Maggie is not a "typical" child. Her parents can rarely relax. She's never in her life quit a game of hide-and-go-seek until somebody finds her in her hiding spot; never quit even if the seekers in the game have yelled out "Olly olly oxen free!" over and over. Maggie wouldn't quit hide-and-go-seek even after hours of what by then were her parents' and brother's panicked shouts and cries, imploring her to please come out .... But there was no quit or coming out in Maggie (assuming she wasn't injured and still within earshot) for even as twilight's alpenglow settled serenely on the impassive grandeur of the mountain's minarets and forested ridges, Maggie remained a no-show. Apparently she played hide-and-go-seek more passionately than most.
Besides fear, hope can be one of the most excruciating emotions parents must cope with and endure in search-and-rescue scenarios like Maggie's. And guilt. Blame. Impatience. Anger .... Charlotte McGuinn Freeman nails to a tee all that inner and outer turmoil, interpersonal tensions, and constant race-against-the-clock pressure as if she were the desperate, frustrated parents (and compassionate, though often bumbling, volunteers of the SAR team too) experiencing hope and the too frequent false hope (of dead-end leads) and anguish herself.
Maggie was last seen by a small lake in Desolation Wilderness. She was wearing a jacket and jeans. And a cap. She's an adorable little girl. She's developmentally and intellectually disabled. She doesn't realize that she is lost and in grave danger. There's an early winter storm moving in. We have to find her fast. Here's her picture. Have you seen her?
Imagine if that were you. Your child.
Few first time novelists attempting to sell their first novel (and to hopefully sell enough copies of it to at least earn their likely meagre advance) would dare the devastating denouement of Maggie's spiritually profound story that Charlotte McGuinn Freeman successfully dramatized here, in her powerful debut, the Picador paperback original, Place Last Seen.
I should disclose that I have an adorable little girl whose nickname is "Meggie" and who also has Down syndrome, and that I've hiked extensively throughout my life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I know Desolation Wilderness pretty well. It's called "Desolation" for a decidedly succinct descriptive reason. So, obviously then, it's probably easy to imagine that I identified a ton with Maggie and her family, though thankfully I didn't relate with her search-and-rescue. I'm not embarrassed saying that Charlotte McGuinn Freeman made me cry. Like a baby. So real, so true and heartfelt, though not sappy and sentimental like some stupid Hallmark Channel fare, was her exciting novel. But man it was excruciating to read. I suspect Freeman's novel probably wouldn't be as evocative or resonate with others like it stirred deep inside me, who don't already have a personal connection with or at least know a "Maggie" or a "Meggie" in their lives.
In nosing around the internet for more information on Charlottle McGuinn Freeman, I remember reading somewhere that Place Last Seen was originally conceived as her theological thesis. Knowing nothing of Freeman's theology or faith, it's still easy to speculate and to see how visceral an analogy or potent an object lesson Maggie's story could've made in her thesis: How a lost and helpless little girl, completely unaware that she's lost and helpless because of her intellectual disability -- and in grave, immediate danger as a result -- symbolizes humankind's inescapable, impending plight. Death. And not merely of the body, but the death of our hopes, if not our outright minds, through misinformation (false leads), ignorance and fear; or the crueler death of our spirits crushed by like endless tsunamis of suffering, disappointment and despair. Pure conjecture all that, as again I don't know exactly what Freeman's faith or theology is rooted in, other than it seems strangely -- to me, a non-practicing though fateful absurdeist -- appealing and, who knows, maybe even redemptive and somehow healing.
Hello Enrique -- Charlotte Freeman here. Is it terrible to say that the evil writer part of me is glad I made you cry? Although just as glad that your Meggie is just fine. The book was a dissertation, but a creative writing one, not a theological one (but I did read a ton of theology while writing it). If it makes you feel any better, Liza, for whom I was a nanny a million years ago, is a perfectly healthy, lovely, grown-up woman now (living with Downs, but fine). Thanks for the lovely review ... so nice to find something so thoughtful when googling oneself!ReplyDelete
Hi there, Charlotte,ReplyDelete
It's not everyday (it's actually never) has an author of a book I've reviewed dropped by and left me such a beautiful note. While I am very happy to hear about Liza, the girl with DS you based Maggie on, that she's doing so well, I'm afraid I can't say the same for my girl, Meggie. She passed away here suddenly at home on 12-27-2013 from a pulmonary embolism. Entirely unexpected. She'd been sick, but nothing life threatening like that.
Your novel, along with Denis Johnson's Train Dreams and Terese Svoboda's, A Drink Called Paradise, were three novels I read and was writing about the year leading up to my daughter's death -- as if in preparation for the shock and the grief to come. Though nothing can really prepare you.
There's a scene at the end of Place Last Seen when one of the rangers on the search crew returns to Maggie's parents house the following spring, after the snow has melted, with the news that Maggie's body has been found. The way you described the father -- it's like he just started shaking, his entire body, from the chest on down, in total sorrow -- was so profound, so spot on -- a scene, in fact, I've had the misfortune of experiencing in my own life, these past couple of months.
Anyway, thank you for your great note. And even more so for your fine novel.
Best to you,