After the fire had died down and we'd stomached as many smores as possible, I crawled into my tent, flipped on the book light, snuggled into my sleeping bag and opened Songs for the Missing. This is the first book I've read by O'Nan, so I didn't know what to expect and was completely blown away. I could not stop reading and it was only when I realized it was past midnight and I would be waking with the dawn, that I forced myself to close the book and turn off the light. The next morning after a campfire breakfast of oatmeal and apples, I headed to the Cummington Old Creamery, sat down with a cup of coffee (Dean's Beans' Creamery Blend is one of my favorites in the Valley; incredibly smooth and mild, but with a complex flavor that belies its mellowness, and the Creamery is the only place to get it), and a super delicious pumpkin cake, and kept reading.
Emily C. picked up Songs for the Missing for me at the Neiba Conference last week on an hunch that I might like it. I don't know if she knew that it was set in Northern Ohio, in a small town called Kingsville just off of I-90 and east of Cleveland. I certainly did not know when I began reading that this was a place intimately familiar to me, not because I've ever been to Kingsville (I have not), but because I grew up in Ohio and spent all of my life there prior to moving to Massachusetts. The stark contrast between Ohio and Massachusetts is always difficult to describe to folks out here; the long flat roads that stretch out endlessly, the wide highways with cars zipping along, the endless strip malls with the same collection of fast food joints and dollar stores, the repetition of suburban houses that vary only in their shades of pale yellow and white exterior siding, a monotonous sequence on loop. If I should ever again need to explain to anyone what that part of my childhood was like, I just might hand them this book. Kingsville is the kind of place I've driven past dozens of times on my way to and from larger places, barely pausing to notice its presence except perhaps to stop off the freeway to fill up on gas or get something to eat; the kind of place I could describe in great detail without ever setting foot there. O'Nan of course, does it better than I ever could.
O'Nan gets small-town Midwest life dead-on. The picture he paints of Kingsville is at times painfully real. While I grew up in Columbus, a large city and far off almost mythical land for the characters in the novel, I spent a good deal of time outside of the city in places just like Kingsville. The slow summer boredom of the recently graduated teens as they wait for September so they can leave for college, that endless ache to get out and leave small town life behind, the nights spent hanging out on the hoods of cars in parking lots, or hopping over rocks on a river-front, the taunting appeal of drugs and alcohol as a means of staving off boredom and tolerating the tedious trickle of time, congregating with friends outside the Dairy Queen drinking Blizzards and beer, and the persistent confident knowledge that you were merely biding your time until you were gone; this is how O'Nan opens the novel, and this is what I remember of the summer after my senior year.
O'Nan's characters are abruptly jerked out of this late-summer stupor by the disappearance of eighteen year old Kim Larsen. The novel follows Kim's family: mother, father and introverted younger sister, and her handful of close friends, including her boyfriend J.P., as they struggle with their loss and the precarious state of uncertainty that searching for a missing person brings. As their search widens and the community rallies together in support of the Larsens, one appreciates the close-knit and familiar nature of Kingsville, but the search also reveals that even in the smallest towns it's possible to have secrets. O'Nan intimately describes the sense of helplessness Kim's father feels and the frustration of not knowing what happened. He maps the transformation of Kim's mother as she repeatedly steps into the public spotlight to raise awareness and rally support for their search, while in private tackling a fraught mother-daughter relationship with Lindsay, her other daughter. O'Nan also traces the trajectory of Kim's college bound friends and boyfriend J.P. as they eventually leave Kingsville; rather than coming off as a trite teenage love story, J.P's process of pulling in and letting go and his insights into his relationship with Kim that develop only in her absence are sincere. Each figure in this somber story comes alive with the breath of purely good fictional writing; their grief is acute and their struggles poignant. Songs for the Missing is a persistent but beautiful heartache and an incredible assay into the nature of loss.