For me, this novel was really about many different kinds of loss and the many different kinds of relationships involving love or the lack of it. It is about the loss of innocence, the loss of freedom, of memory, of a body part. It is about the loss of love or the inability to understand or find it. It is about what happens when something or someone that has been lost, is found after years of searching. It is about whether or not the search and discovery are worthwhile or whether or not the results are expected. It is about how the loss is handled by those grieving and about how those lost or those suffering from the loss, eventually come to terms with their trauma and learn to survive, if they are even retrievable. Each of the characters is involved in a traumatic event involving some kind of loss. Something is missing from each of their lives.
In this novel, the author tells two parallel stories. One is about Naomi Cottle and her experiences. She is a young female detective who finds missing children. She is called the “child finder”. It is fitting that she has chosen this occupation because she had been a missing child, as well, but she has no memory of her life before her escape and rescue. When she became the foster child of Mrs. Cottle, a gentle woman who had lots of love to give, she began her recovery. Mrs. Cottle was kind and helped her to find her way back to life with her tenderness and compassion. Naomi had hoped some of her memory would return, but when the story begins, it has not. She is still searching for herself, as well as for others. Is she afraid to find her past? How will she deal with it if she remembers the horror of what happened to her?
The other story is about a child named Madison. Naomi has been hired by Madison Culver’s parents to try and locate her. She has been missing for three years, but her mother believes that she is still alive. Naomi takes the case but explains that she may not find Madison alive, and even if she does, she may not be the same child they lost. How a child survives from the capture and brutality may cause tremendous changes in the child. How would Madison survive?
Madison disappeared in the forest while hunting for a Christmas tree with her mother and father. When she wandered away from them, they did not see her leave. She fell and was injured. Lying, almost frozen in the snow, she was found by a man who could not hear or speak. He picked her up and carried her home. In his clumsy, misguided way, he saved her life, but what kind of a life did he provide? When she regained consciousness, she discovered that she was not with her parents but with this strange man with a very fragile temperament. She learned that he was easy to anger and was a deaf mute. Her five-year old child’s mind conjured up a fantasy which enabled her to survive as the time passed. She was no longer Madison. She was “the snow child”. In her young mind, she was born of the snow like the child in her favorite Russian folk tale. She was intuitive and tried to anticipate the moods of the man who kept her locked up. She hoped to prevent him from hurting her and to encourage him to allow her out of the “cave” in which she believed she was being held prisoner.
The author handles the issue of sex very delicately. She uses metaphors for subjects that are difficult for Madison’s child’s mind to understand. When she is sexually abused she thinks of the sticks in the forest, and believes the twigs are hurting her. There are other references throughout, to serpents and snakes. The author has also imbued Madison with a mind that seems far more mature than that of a child’s. Her ability to read and write, to draw pictures to explain things and her thoughtful explanations and interpretations of her situation appear to be far more adult than someone with her meager number of years.
Mr. B, the man who holds Madison captive, is like a child himself, although he is grown and quite large. He has had practically no experience with the outside world. He was kidnapped as a young child and was kept in a dark, dank cellar. He was beaten severely when he angered his captor. Today, he is simply a trapper who lives in the forest. He has never learned to read or write, and he has no understanding of normal emotions, other than extreme anger. If he is found, he would be very changed. He had once been a happy seven-year old child who wasjust beginning to learn his letters and how to lip read at the time he became separated from his family. They were distracted in a store when he wandered out, unnoticed, and was carried away by a man who lived in the forest and was known only for his meanness. Unable to make a sound, Mr. B, known as Brian at that time, simply disappeared. One minute he was there, and then, he was not. Perhaps the way he treated “the snow girl” was the only way he knew how to treat someone. He learned to hunt, kill animals and trade their skins, but he never learned to love. Madison, now “the snow child”, feared he would kill her too.
There is another character, fostered by the same wonderful woman, Mrs. Cottle, who cared for Naomi and helped her through her trauma. He is Jerome. Naomi and Jerome were raised together. He, though, seems to be the only completely emotionally whole victim in the story, although he might have been the most floundering because of his experiences of abuse and suffering. Mrs. Cottle helped him find a new purpose in his life. She helped him fill in his missing parts with her pure and genuine love and concern for him.
The book also raises and touches on many of the progressive ideas threading through the narrative of conversation today, as well as many of the social issues concerning us. The author raises the topic of sex trafficking. She touches on mental health issues when she tells the story of a woman who is autistic whose child is missing. Through her story, she also touches on racism and the additional obstacles her family had to face because of it. With Jerome, she touches on the dangerous effects of our political policies surrounding war and those who are involved in fighting the battles. With him, she also touches on Native American fables and, once again, racism. She touches on how death enters and leaves our lives and how we deal with the effects. Some face it head on and some skirt around the idea and are in denial. When the ranger’s wife sneaks off to die quietly, alone and without fanfare, he is left behind; he is bereft and frozen in place. He wants to know if she will ever be found. Although she has found her peace, his has been disturbed. Perhaps, the novel obliquely also touches on the harmful effects of ignorance, even when it is not a choice, but is a consequence of natural events, and the beneficial effects of having faith in someone or something, other than oneself. Then, also, there is the story of a missing illegal alien. When his mother reports him missing, she is arrested, shackled and deported. His body is later found, a victim of violence. Some of these stories seemed somewhat contrived in order to promote particular political points of view. Some felt unrelated to the rest of the novel and some felt perfectly at home within the pages.
The narrator read each character with a clear, definitive voice. She enhanced the novel with her interpretation of each of them.