What Happened to Clara? by R.Z. Halleson

What Happened to Clara?

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Halleson (The Origin of Fear, 2015, etc.) makes picturesque Wisconsin farmland the backdrop of disturbing crimes in this novel.

As Silje Reiersen grows from adolescence to young adulthood in the 1950s, she shares the same concerns as most of the girls in her rural Wisconsin area: her grades, her shifting friendships with female classmates, and her growing interest in boys. Silje chafes at the restrictions in her life, such as the loneliness of existence on her farm and her Norwegian-American family’s taboos against showing emotion. She escapes into books, imagining the day that she can flee for good into the world outside of the farm. Her imagination also causes moments of paralyzing fear, such as when her mind runs wild with terrible possibilities on a night when her parents are late coming home from a trip. But she has reason for her trepidations to be concrete. Children and teens keep disappearing from all over Wisconsin. Unbeknown to their parents, or to the authorities, they are being kidnapped by multiple individuals who take advantage of their victims’ isolation and funnel the captives to larger child-trafficking rings in Chicago. As Silje ages, the abductions start hitting closer and closer to home, until it seems like anyone, even Silje, could be next. Halleson clearly has a strong understanding of the Norwegian-Americans who populate her novel, and their depictions seem extremely authentic. She’s equally skilled at representing the criminal mind, and the passages from the perspective of a kidnapper are chilling. But these talents are at odds with each other, to the point that it seems that two separate novels, a coming-of-age story and a thriller, are happening simultaneously. The work tries to force a connection between the narratives, as when Silje learns how to drive the family tractor a few pages after a kidnapper calls his victim a “prize heifer,” but the two agricultural references only highlight the plotlines’ stark differences. It is unclear if the book’s focus is meant to be Silje’s experiences of growing up in the country or an increasingly implausible abduction yarn that seems custom-made for a “stranger danger” public service announcement. Either would make an absorbing tale, but together they are discordant.

A coming-of-age and kidnapping story that is certain of its characters but confused about its identity.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2016
Page count: 152pp
Publisher: Gjerda Media
Program: Kirkus Indie
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