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The Odd Sea

The Odd Sea

4.8 10
by Frederick Reiken

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One sunny spring morning, 16-year-old Ethan Shumway walks down his gravel driveway and vanishes without a trace. A gifted athlete and musician, he leaves behind a wake of family and friends who search for understanding in the unbearable presence of loss.


One sunny spring morning, 16-year-old Ethan Shumway walks down his gravel driveway and vanishes without a trace. A gifted athlete and musician, he leaves behind a wake of family and friends who search for understanding in the unbearable presence of loss.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Frederick Reiken's elegiac first novel is a thoughtful meditation on disappearance, hope, and absence, the story of the story of one family's quest for healing and resolution in the aftermath of inexplicable loss.

One Saturday in May -- "the first hot day we'd had all spring" -- 16-year-old Ethan Shumway sets out alone for Baker's Bottom Pond and never returns. As news of his disappearance spreads, family and friends volunteer to help comb the rural hilltowns of western Massachusetts in search of the missing boy. But by summer's end, no trace of Ethan has been found, and the Shumways must at last confront the likelihood of his death.

Reiken's utterly engaging narrator is Ethan's younger brother, 13-year-old Philip. Smart, funny, and more than a little overwhelmed by what his family has come to call the Odd Sea -- "the place that things disappear to, when they do" -- Philip chronicles his family's struggle to cope with Ethan's disappearance and to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen them. Battling depression and insomnia, Philip's mother indulges in midnight baking binges. His father, a carpenter, rededicates himself to the traditional art of timber framing, a vocation that repays his effort with the reassuring promise of permanence and beauty. The eldest sister, Amy, angrily distances herself from her family's reluctance to face facts, while the younger girls, Halley and Dana, devote themselves to cheerleading and basketball. For his part, Philip continues to give Ethan the benefit of the doubt by "not-searching" for him, on the assumption that "each walk where I found nothing only increased the odds of Ethan's being alive."

As the years pass, Philip traces the shape of Ethan's absence in the lives of those who knew him and is surprised to find a composite image that is far more complex than that of the older brother he had idolized. Ethan's artist girlfriend, Melissa Moody, tells Philip that part of her has gone adrift since his disappearance, inhabiting an "in-between place" that is "[n]ot here and not wherever Ethan is." Similarly unmoored, Victoria Rhone, the director of Cummington School of the Arts and Ethan's sexually radiant mentor, mysteriously leaves to rebuild her life in the Pacific Northwest. But it is not until Amy produces Ethan's missing diary that Philip learns the full extent of Ethan's involvement with these two very different women. Ethan's shocking diary also provides the impetus necessary for Philip to move beyond his in-between place and inspires him to keep a journal of his own. At first he writes mostly about Ethan, because "when I'm writing he always feels alive." Later, as the compulsion to keep a record of nearly everything takes hold and Philip recognizes his calling, he tells his father, "I guess I have a writer inside me, the same way you have a timber framer inside you."

Reiken's willingness to leave unresolved the central mystery of Ethan's disappearance is one of the book's greatest strengths. Whether Ethan fell victim to some opportunistic predator (serial killer or mountain lion), made a romantic escape to Oregon with Victoria Rhone or a pilgrimage to the Arles of his revered Van Gogh, or stepped blindly through some mystical doorway in time is not the issue. By placing such easy answers beyond the pale and requiring each character to make his or her own peace with Ethan's absence, Reiken expands the human dimension of his novel. "In the end, art is always about absence," Victoria reminds Philip. "But it is also about presence. Because when something disappears, we must respond by expressing our living, breathing, visible bodies. And the more you can feel of whatever's missing, the more powerful your own response will be."

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Here's a haunting first novel that takes a horrifying family calamity and turns it into a form of magic....the possibility of disaster grows in the reader's mind, and with it a sense of the story's looming pain. The author, who lives in western Massachusetts and is a reporter and nature writer for The Daily Hampshire Gazette, has skillfully balanced this pain against the hopefulness of the narrator....the mixture of the grisly and metaphysical that Reiken works so effectively keeps you spellbound by The Odd Sea until its very last page. -- The New York Times
Dan Cryer
A luminous parable. It's only the first, we hope, of many more novels from Frederick Reiken.
New York Times Book Review
Haunting...Takes a horrifying family calamity and turns it into a form of magic.
John Skow
The story has a dark, dreamlike quality, and . . .Reiken tells it with no melodrama nor any word out of place. Time
An extraordinarily good first novel...Reiken tells it with no melodrama nor any word out place.
Library Journal
This moving debut novel is narrated, over a period of years and with growing comprehension, by a boy whose beloved and talented older brother vanishes one summer afternoon. Young Philip richly details the varying responses of his three sisters; his mother, who copes with serious bouts of depression; and his father, always a sturdy presence. Eventually, Philip comes to an understanding of the missing Ethan's complicated relationships with his sweetheart, Melissa (a painter and a well-rounded character who evolves gracefully over the years) and with the older, sexually vivid Victoria, director of a local artists' colony. The importance of the arts in the lives of humans is well observed in ways that are not didactic, and the richness, difficulty, and variability of a loving family is similarly shown. The one major weakness is the title, a play on The Odyssey. Libraries should buy and promote this young writer's work and look for his next book.
--Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence College Library
John Skow
The story has a dark, dreamlike quality, and . . .Reiken tells it with no melodrama nor any word out of place. Time
Kirkus Reviews
A meditative and elegiac first novel that's doomed to comparisons with Judith Guest's Ordinary People, though it's a much better book. The story is set in the western Massachusetts "hilltowns" (specifically, Cummington, where author Reiken works as a newspaper reporter) and narrated by Philip Shumway, who recalls the summer when he was 13 and his older brother Ethan mysteriously disappeared and never returned. Detailed flashbacks picture the Shumways as a high-spirited, gregarious family altered forever by the loss of its best and brightest: a talented musician who seemingly combined their father's cheerful energy (he's a carpenter) with their mother's more thoughtful and reflective nature (and who loved, and was loved, more than those closest to him knew). Reiken effectively distinguishes them and Ethan's four siblings (eldest sister Amy's persistent anger is especially well realized), while portraying narrator Philip as a believably confused adolescent whose need to know Ethan's fate leads him to compose "sketches in which he magically came home," sketches that will become building-blocks (though Reiken doesn't belabor this) in his progress toward becoming a writer. The book's appealing title derives from a charming fairy tale (about "Sawchuk, the great beaver king") that Philip's father makes up, to entertain and distract his children, and that Amy recognizes as "The Odyssey, transposed," while youngest sister Dana misrepeats as "the odd sea" (and, Philip explains in turn, that "by extension, the Odd Sea is what we came to call the place things disappear to, when they do") Though grief and loss are constants throughout, the novel is anything but lachrymose ornarrowly focused. Its spare prose, charged with understated but obviously strong emotion, memorably captures how its characters cope simply by perseveringþand by doing things. There's a moving parallel, for example, between the father's life-saving obsession with the technique of timber-framing house construction and Philips's development into a dedicated preserver of his own complex past. A beautiful, unsentimental work.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
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Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Charting the Odd Sea

Chapter 1

Ethan, vanishing

Years ago, on New Year's Day, my older brother, Ethan, and I went skating on a river. No snow had fallen all that winter, and before Christmas we were hit with a week of windy, subzero days. The cold snap ended one late December evening, leaving a sky so clear that stars seemed to be trapped in the netlike branches at the top of each sugar maple. We woke next morning to pale sunlight and a windless twenty degrees. As it turned out, the year's first snowstorm hit the Hilltowns a week later, but for a few days it was possible to skate on the Westfield River for miles and miles.

It had been Ethan's idea to try it. That fall we'd each acquired secondhand hockey skates at the annual VFW ski-and-skate swap, held in Dalton. Ethan was ten and I was seven. We had been skating on the pond right near our house since late November. When Ethan heard from his friend Charles Waltman that the Westfield was frozen solid, he asked Mom to drive us over to Cummington, where the river runs right along Route 9.

She refused the request at first, but we explained that the Waltmans, even their parents, had gone skating on the river the day before. My mother knew the Waltmans, so she called them. Mr. Waltman said the river had been frozen to perfection, and that his boys had skated all the way to Chesterfield Gorge and back.

Around noon on New Year's Day, Mom parked her car in the Old Creamery Grocery lot. We tied our skates with the heat blasting, then she walked us both across Route 9. We made our way down to the river, removed the rubber blade guards, and stepped out onto the ice. Mom seemed convinced the ice was safe, so she informed us that she'd wait inside the Creamery, which was open. Ethan and I headed west on the frozen river. There were some rocks to dodge and logs to jump, but mostly we skated as if entranced.

It took close to an hour to reach the village of West Cummington, where we had promised we'd turn back. By then I was freezing and my toes were numb. I knew the plan and I kept waiting for my brother to stop skating. But he kept going, right past the village, and only stopped where the river turns north and runs toward Windsor Jambs.

Then he said, "What if we could skate right up to the Arctic Circle? Would that be totally cool or what?''

I said, "We'd probably die of frostbite.''

Ethan said, "Actually, we'd die of hypothermia.''

I said, "Hey, maybe we'd get eaten by a polar bear.''

He said, "Or maybe we'd just keep going, up to the North Pole then down through the Himalayas. That's where a yeti would have us both for breakfast.''

I don't know why this conversation thrilled me. I kept on hearing it in my head as we raced back to the Creamery. As it turned out, I kept hearing it weeks afterward. At random times throughout the rest of that long winter, he'd ask me, "Hey, where do you think we'd be right now if we kept skating?''

I'd say the name of someplace in Canada. Or I'd say, "Lost in the Himalayas.'' Then Ethan would ask me what I thought would happen. I'd shout out something like, "A pack of arctic wolves would tear our heads off!'' I never understood the point of the joke. I suppose we liked imagining all the ways we could get killed. And I suppose it didn't matter what gruesome deaths we conjured up, as neither one of us seemed to have any real plans for skating off into oblivion.

When I was thirteen Ethan disappeared. It was a Saturday in late May, the first hot day we'd had all spring. He peeked his head into my bedroom and said, "Hey, Baker's Bottom?''

I started rummaging through my closet for pond sneakers. Baker's Bottom Pond was aptly named, given the doughlike quality of the mud on the pond's floor. The mud was slimy and filled with leeches that would get between your toes. I pulled a beat-up pair of high-tops out from beneath a pile of shoes. I slipped them on just as Amy, the oldest of my three sisters, walked in the room.

She said, "I thought I was driving you to your bird class.''

I looked at Ethan and said, "Forgot.''

Back then I lived for birds. I kept a list with every bird I saw, and I was up to 136 different species.

"Maybe tomorrow?'' I said.

"Doubtful.'' He turned to Amy and said, "Hey, you've got that look, like you wanna kill someone.''

"I do,'' Amy said. "But first I have to drive Philip to his bird class.''

Ethan stepped toward her and whispered something in her ear. It made her smile, then Ethan headed down the stairs.

We heard the screen door slam behind him. The sound startled our black cat, Meany, who had been sleeping on my desk. The cat jumped up, then settled down again. With his sandpaper tongue, he began licking his own shoulder. Glancing out my bedroom window, I saw my brother walking toward the bend in the gravel driveway.

I turned to Amy, who had pulled a cigarette from her purse. She was holding it unlit between her fingers, her way of signaling that she wanted to leave that instant.

"We're doing warblers today,'' I said. "They're hard to tell.''

She said, "That's thrilling.''

"Just changing back to my normal sneakers.''

"I can see that,'' Amy said.

I tossed my pond sneakers in the closet. I slipped my running sneakers back on. When I stood up I looked outside again. My brother had disappeared. I don't mean he was out of sight and heading for the pond. Ethan had walked down the driveway, the May sun glinting off the back of his yellow T-shirt. Then he was gone.

By the next morning we understood Ethan was missing. Within a day it seemed that everyone in the Hilltowns knew the story.

Or the non-story-that was the problem. There was no story except for the puzzling absence of a story. At first we tried to stay calm and logical. My sister Halley and I went door-to-door asking neighbors if they'd seen him. My youngest sister, Dana, tagged along with us. After we'd questioned every Plainfield resident within a reasonable proximity, the three of us walked the perimeter of Baker's Bottom Pond. Halley kept saying she was sure there was a simple explanation. Dana kept saying, "Where do you think he went?''

Meanwhile Amy and my parents called every one of Ethan's friends, teachers, coaches, or acquaintances they could think of. They talked at length with Ethan's girlfriend, Melissa Moody, who had last seen him two nights before, when he went over there for dinner. She thought he'd acted perfectly normal. She said he'd forgotten his blue windbreaker. My dad spoke hourly with our town's fire chief, Wally Everett, and at a certain point Chief Everett made the decision to mobilize a search.

What People are Saying About This

Frederick Busch
Reiken has written powerfully about coming to terms with the mysteries of sex and death. He is especially convincing in his memorable portrait of a tormented family whose strength is the essence of the novel -- the struggle of parents and children to discover how to find a way to give their love.

Meet the Author

Frederick Reiken holds a B.A. from Princeton and an M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine. His first novel, The Odd Sea, was chosen by Booklist as one of the 20 Best First Novels of the Year and won the Hackney Literary Award.

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The Odd Sea 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
TheFeudist More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding novel, beautifully paced and restrained. While it depicts the inexplicable disappearance of a family's favorite son/brother, it avoids sentimentality and finds truth and redemption in strange and interesting places. The author deftly explores the three remaining siblings' rise through sexual maturity and their grappling with guilt and other complex feelings in a surprisingly gripping narrative. I found the book hard to put down and highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was simply a very enjoyable read. Although it may have lacked a bit in plot, the manner and style in which it was written was simply beautiful. I finished the book the day I bought it and have recommended it to many. Frederick Reiken's second novel 'The Lost Legends of New Jersey' is superb as well!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The word 'masterpiece' gets thrown around far too loosely in the world of literature and that is unfortunate when a truly amazing novel such as Frederick Reiken's 'The Odd Sea' finds you. The book uses wonderful storytelling techniques and keeps you mesmerized by it's fantastic characters. Reiken sums up the narrative in the chapter six when he states 'what seems most beautiful is usually that which brings us back to what is absent'. In this story we see how a young person deals with the loss of a loved one and also what is lacking in our world of literary 'masterpieces'. One reading will make clear what is absent in most current releases and make you long for more gems like 'The Odd Sea'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very odd book. I liked the way it was writen. It didn't, however, have much of a plot. It was worth the time that it took to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was awsome i couldnt put it down. if you like eerie stories you'll love this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Odd Sea is the best book I have read in a very long time. His use of language and landscape are stunning. He has created such intimate beauty in the midst of a family's tragedy. The characters are extremely well formed, and you end up feeling like part of the family. You connect with their emotions, and feel their joys and pains. I had the pleasure of meeting Frederick Reiken when he gave an ovation at my college. He is a wonderful novelist and speaker. To hear excerpts of the book read from the person who knows it best was an incredible experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Once you start reading, it's only a matter of time before you get swept up in the 'Odd Sea' yourself!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is very powerful; I couldn't put it down. Phillip is the kind of boy you want to be life-long friends with. His innocence and the way in which he discovers who his brother was are so real. You don't know if you want him to be your brother or your boyfriend or best friend, but you want to be a part of his life. And you want to know his brother Ethan too. You so desperately want to help Phillip find what he is looking for that it nearly pains you. Phillips emotions are so real; read this book, you will lose yourself in it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book brings you back to the terrible reality.But you enjoy it.It makes you realise that something like that can happed to everybody at any time.