In Kagen’s hardcover debut (Land of a Hundred Wonders, 2008), a young Virginia girl puzzles over her mother’s disappearance.
It is 1969, shortly before the moon landing and one year since Shenny’s mother Evie, an educated, liberal Yankee whom Shenny’s father married against his family’s wishes, disappeared. Shenny’s twin sister Woody—the girls are 11 when the story opens—has stopped speaking and their father Walter, a respected judge from the influential Carmody family, has become a raving drunk who locks the girls in the root cellar overnight when they disobey his orders to stay home in order to avoid communication with anyone outside the family. Tomboy Shenny and increasingly fragile Woody disobey frequently, visiting the friends Evie cultivated behind her husband’s back as their marriage soured. The girls are especially fond of Beezy, an elderly black woman who was once a Carmody servant, and her handsome, blue-eyed son Sam, who used to be a police detective in Illinois before he came home to run a gas station. Since no body or clues have been found, the local sheriff investigating Evie’s disappearance seems to have hit a dead end. Shenny starts her own investigation with no better luck. Her acuity is questionable. Although she claims to be surprised by her father’s transformation from loving to abusive father, she was aware of the troubles in her parents’ marriage which involved Walter’s attempts to bully Evie the same way his father and brother bully all the women in their lives. The Carmody men are cartoonishly evil—rich, misogynistic, predatory and racist—while Shenny’s Carmody grandmother is a Catholic religious fanatic. Although Kagen makes references to cultural touchstones like Vietnam and the moon landing, her version of 1969 Virginia veers from anachronistically innocent to anachronistically backward. And Shenny’s determined pluck seems both too innocently young and too precocious to coalesce into a believable 12-year-old.
Shenny starts her narration by warning that first impressions “can be dead wrong,” but there’s never a question as to who’s good or bad in her story.