The booming North Dakota oil business is spawning “man camps,” shantytowns full of men hired to work on the rigs, in towns without enough housing to accommodate them. In such twilight spaces, it’s easy for a person to vanish. And when two young men in their first year on the job disappear without a trace, only their mothers believe there’s hope of finding them. Despite reassurances that the police are on the case, the two women think the oil company is covering up the disappearances—and maybe something more.
Colleen, used to her decorous life in a wealthy Massachusetts suburb, is determined to find her son. And hard-bitten Shay, from the wrong side of the California tracks, is the only person in town even willing to deal with her—because she’s on the same mission. Overtaxed by worry, exhaustion, and fear, these two unlikely partners question each other’s methods and motivations, but must work together against the town of strangers if they want any chance of finding their lost boys. But what they uncover could destroy them both...
Sure to please fans of Sandra Brown and Gillian Flynn, The Missing Place is a moving chronicle of survival, determination, and powerful bonds forged in the face of adversity.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Missing Place
COLLEEN MITCHELL’S WORLD had been reduced to the two folded sheets of paper she clutched tightly in her left hand. She’d been holding them since leaving Sudbury at four thirty that morning, even when she went through security at Logan, even during the layover in Minneapolis, where she paced numbly up and down the terminal. The paper was slightly damp now and softened from too much handling.
Nobody wrote real letters anymore. Especially not kids. All through middle school, Colleen had forced Paul to write thank-you notes by hand every birthday and Christmas; the monogrammed stationery was still around somewhere, up in the dusty shelves of his closet. Once high school started, they had bigger battles to fight, and she gave up on the notes.
When was the last time she’d even seen her son’s blocky, leaning handwriting? There must be papers—class notes, tests—in the boxes he’d brought back from Syracuse, but Colleen hadn’t had the heart to open any of them, and they too were stacked in the closet. Nowadays Paul texted, that was all, and in Colleen’s hand was a printout of all the texts from him. God bless Vicki—she’d figured out how to print them in neat columns so they fit on two double-sided pages and had emailed Colleen the file too, “just in case.”
Colleen had read them a hundred times. They went back four months, to last September. All the communications from her son since he left—and they fit on two pages. One more indictment of her parenting, of what she’d done wrong or too much or not enough.
SEPTEMBER 27, 2010, 2:05 PM
Got it thx
That was the oldest one. Colleen couldn’t remember what Paul had been thanking her for. Probably one of her care packages—she sent them all throughout last autumn, boxes packed with homemade brownies and Sky Bars and paperback books she knew he’d never read. But when Paul came home for Thanksgiving (well, the week after Thanksgiving, but she and Andy and Andy’s brother Rob and Rob’s girlfriend had delayed the whole turkey-and-pie production until Paul could be there; Andy had even taped the games and waited to watch them with him), he made it clear that the packages embarrassed him.
Next was a series of texts from her:
OCTOBER 28, 2010, 9:16 AM
Hi sweetie dad has enough frequent flyer miles for u to come home when you’re off
OCTOBER 29, 2010, 7:44 AM
When are you off again?
OCTOBER 30, 2010, 11:50 PM
Wish u were here for hween the flannigans have the pumpkin lights in the trees
Like he was eleven, for God’s sake, and off at sleepaway camp, instead of twenty, a man.
A small sob escaped Colleen’s throat, an expulsion of the panic that she’d mostly got under control. She covered the sound with a cough. In her carry-on was half a bottle of Paxil, which Dr. Garrity had given her over a year ago before they settled on a regimen of red clover extract and the occasional Ambien to treat what was, he assured her, a perfectly normal transition into menopause. She hadn’t liked the Paxil; it made her feel dizzy and sometimes sweaty, but she’d packed the bottle yesterday along with her own sleeping pills and Andy’s too. She hadn’t told him, and she felt a little guilty about that, but he’d be able to get a refill tomorrow. She’d leave a message with the doctor’s answering service when they landed, and then all he’d have to do was pick it up.
Colleen refolded the papers and rested her forehead against the airplane window, looking out into the night. The plane had begun its descent. The flight attendant had made her announcement—they’d be on the ground a few minutes before ten, the temperature was one degree, winds at something. One degree was cold. But Boston got cold too, and it didn’t bother Colleen the way it did some people.
Far below, rural North Dakota was lit up by the moon, a vast rolling plain of silvery snow interrupted here and there by rocky swaths where the land rose up in ridges. Colleen tried to remember if she’d ever been to either Dakota. She couldn’t even remember the names of the capitals—Pierre? Was that one of them?
A flare of orange caught her eye, a rippling brightness surrounded by a yawning black hole in the snow. And there. And there! Half a dozen of them dotting the bleak landscape, blazes so bright they looked unnatural, the Day-Glo of a traffic cone. Colleen’s first thought was forest fire, but there were no trees, and then she thought of the burning piles of trash she saw sometimes in Mattapan or Dorchester. But people didn’t burn trash at night, and besides, there were no houses, no town, just—
And then she saw it, the tall burred spire like an old-time radio tower, and she knew, even as they flew past, that she had seen her first rig. The plane was still too far up for her to make out any details except that it looked so small, so flimsy, almost like a child’s toy—a Playmobil oil rig play set with little plastic roughnecks.
The plane tipped down, the engine shifted, and so did the men, the tired-looking, ill-shaven lot of them who’d boarded with her in Minneapolis. They turned off their iPads and crumpled their paper coffee cups and cleared the sleep from their throats.
Colleen closed her eyes, the image of the rig imprinted in her mind, and as they approached Lawton, she thought, Give him back, you have to give him back to me.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Missing Place includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sophie Littlefield. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the booming oil town of Lawton, North Dakota, two men hired to work on the rigs go missing without a trace, and only their mothers hold out hope of finding them. Shay, a hardened woman from the wrong side of the California tracks, and Colleen, a woman from the wealthy suburbs of Boston, discover the doors in Lawton are closed to them and form an unlikely partnership. In this barren landscape, against all odds, these two women have no choice but to join forces to find their lost sons, and in doing so must learn that each has much to teach the other.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Describe and discuss how the setting of Lawton, North Dakota, evokes the major themes in Littlefield’s The Missing Place.
2. Compare and contrast the two main characters, Colleen and Shay. Why might the author have created characters who differ from each other in so many ways?
3. Which mother handles the news of her son’s disappearance better at the beginning of the book? What about as events progress? How do their backgrounds help or hinder them in their efforts?
4. Shay criticizes Colleen’s parenting throughout the book, challenging her on her “helicopter parenting.” Do you think these criticisms are valid? How could Colleen have been a more effective parent given the challenges her family faced?
5. There is a shortage of housing in Lawton, North Dakota, and Colleen and Shay have great difficulty finding a place to stay. In what other ways does the oil boom affect the community? How does the oil boom affect the mothers’ search?
6. T.L. is introduced in the third chapter with little explanation. On first meeting him, how did you imagine he might fit into the story? How did your evaluation change as the book progressed?
7. Many theories about the boys’ disappearance are advanced by people Colleen and Shay meet, as well as by their own sleuthing. Which theory did you find most convincing? Why?
8. The North Dakota oil boom has been in the news for quite some time. How did media coverage affect your perception of the fictional town of Lawton? The Fort Mercer reservation? The quest for domestic oil?
9. Shay and Colleen are not the only two driven to Lawton by desperation. As in real life, many rig workers seek work after losing jobs to the economic downturn, in other fields, leaving behind loved ones. What difficult decisions have people in your own life made in similar circumstances?
10. As Shay learns about Paul’s troubled history, she questions her son’s choice of friends. Colleen has agonized over her son’s social life for many years. Did each mother do right by her son? Have you faced similar challenges?
11. Once the mystery has been resolved, the relationship between the mothers shifts again. How would you describe the balance of compassion, indebtedness, and blame? Does either mother “owe” the other?
12. Though the boys are at the center of the story, they rarely appear in the book. What techniques did the author use to develop their characters? How did your evaluation of each boy change over the course of the book?
13. Near the end of the novel, Andy makes surprising choices in dealing with the tragedy. Do you think his actions are appropriate? How do they affect his relationships with his family?
14. In the end, all the parents in the book—Colleen, Shay, Andy, and Myron—return to lives in which they will no longer live with their children. Are they equipped for this transition? Are you optimistic about their future well-being?
Enhance Your Book Club
See the movie There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis. It is based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s book, Oil!. It is about a turn-of- the-century prospector in the early years of the oil business.
Read Grapes of Wrath–the story of the Joad family leaving Oklahoma after the “Dust Bowl” to go to California, where prospects are rumored to be better.
Another movie comes to mind–Fargo, starring William H. Macy and Francis McDormand. It is set in Fargo, Minnesota, whose land- scape is as forbidding as that of Lawton, North Dakota. This movie by Joel and Ethan Coen features a murder.
Learn more about The Trail of Broken Treaties, a national movement that took place in 1972 to call attention to American Indian issues including treaty rights and inadequate housing.
A Conversation with Sophie Littlefield
1. What drew you to the bleak landscape of the North Dakota oil boom?
Over a year ago, I came across an article in People magazine about the North Dakota “man camps” where rig workers live, most of whom have left families behind in order to come find work. I was drawn to the images of these exhausted, lonely men. I decided that I had to see for myself how the overtaxed town coped with the influx of outsiders, and how the workers found the grit to get up each day and do this dangerous, difficult work.
2. Were you surprised by what you found?
Yes. I was expecting to find corruption and despair in the camps— drugs, alcoholism, grievances parlayed into violence. I had read about the skyrocketing crime statistics and the tensions introduced by the overwhelmingly high ratio of men to women.
What I found instead was a community of men, and a smattering of women, working and living together and making the best of things. They were unfailingly polite, and their greatest asset in coping with their circumstances seemed to be a sense of humor and an atmosphere of respect. I don’t mean to imply that everyone I spoke to was a candidate for sainthood, only that their stories were far more relatable than I had expected.
3. How did the story—two missing boys and the mothers who come to find them—evolve after your visit?
I knew I wanted to write a suspenseful novel where the stakes were intensely personal. I often write about women, especially mothers, and those who care for the young, because a threat to a child’s welfare can turn an ordinary Everywoman into a warrior.
In adding a second missing son and frantic mother, I was able to bring two very different characters together. Forcing the two mothers to interact gave me interesting opportunities to explore a variety of types of tension. I’ve done the protagonist-with-a-sidekick structure several times, but I enjoyed the challenge of having two main characters carry the story.
4. The mothers are very different. Are they drawn from people you know?
I was talking to my agent, Barbara Poelle, not long after I had completed a first draft, trying to hammer out some inconsistencies in Colleen and Shay’s relationship, when she said something that struck a chord: “They’re both you.”
Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you. I had worried that I was writing caricatures, extreme examples of the women I knew in my struggling-waitress days in the Midwest and my more recent affluent-housewife days in the suburbs. Instead I was working out the shortcomings and disappointments, the hopes and expectations, that I’d experienced in both worlds. While it’s not germane to the story, I think that in writing these two women and forcing them to work together, I was reconciling two very different parts of my past, figuring out what remains now that I’m no longer in either circumstance.
I’ve been asked which character I like more, and which is the better parent. The truth is that I feel compassion for both of them. Our circumstances give us tools as well as limitations, no matter where we come from.
5. In The Missing Place you introduce a Native American character and explore the prejudice he and his family experience. You’ve written about race and class before. How does this novel break new ground?
My decision to incorporate this type of prejudice into the plot came from a chance conversation I had with some men over dinner in the “man camp.” We were brainstorming about what might cause a man to go missing from a rig, and they casually mentioned rumors that white men had stumbled onto reservation land to camp or fish, and had been pulled from their trucks and beaten.
I never found anything to substantiate these rumors, but this off-hand comment reminded me that racial tension exists in rural America in a way that I don’t often see living in urban Northern California. A Native American who feels exposed in a predominantly white North Dakota town would have a very different experience in a major U.S. city, and as a writer I’m interested in the emotional experience of diversity and prejudice.
6. Could the relationship between Shay and Colleen be described as a friendship? Any lessons here about relationships between adult women?
The most interesting part of writing Shay and Colleen was exploring what it means to depend on another person. They are forced to deal with issues of trust, vulnerability, honesty, and generosity, all in a very compressed time frame. I don’t know how you could help becoming close to someone in those circumstances. But like many intense relationships, the line between gratitude and resentment, love and hate, is a tenuous one.
Extrapolating outward, I would say that middle-aged women are better equipped to handle the turbulence of an intense friendship than younger women in some ways: They’re less apt to take things personally and more willing to take responsibility for their own feelings. Certainly, both Shay and Colleen must draw on their own life experiences to find the courage and patience to work together.
7. What are you writing next?
The book I’m working on takes place closer to home, in a gritty part of Oakland, California, where an out-of-work teacher relocates in order to recover from a terrible loss, only to discover that changing her identity doesn’t keep all of her demons at bay, and that she has more to fear than the crime wave sweeping the neighborhood.