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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."