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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
~Received For An Honest Review~ Fast paced. Interesting enough to keep you reading. The heartbreak that these two mothers face. But what it is it that they find out that could be more harmful then good? Grab your copy and see all for yourself!
A special thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield, an intense, page-turner mystery of two strong and opposite female protagonists; willing to risk it all, in order to save their sons from the cold dark town and oil fields in North Dakota. If you are seeking a weekend book to curl up with, for a guaranteed intriguing, satisfying and engaging ride, this is it! Two boys (Taylor and Paul) go missing the same day in Lawton, North Dakota where they are working on an oil rig and staying at the Black Creek Lodge. All the hotels are full due to the workers, and the size of the small town. When two mothers cannot get any answers from the local authorities or the energy company, they both set out a dangerous quest to attain answers about their sons. (stuck in a small trailer) Two mothers (have never met one another): Shay, (mother of Taylor), is an in your face, brash, passionate, single mom; street smart, low on cash, from the wrong side of the tracks in California. She has an honest and open relationship with her son and they are very close. She will do anything to find him (and boy, is she creative and resourceful). Colleen, (mother of ADHD dyslexic son, Paul), wealthy housewife from Boston, with her classic pearls and cashmere sweaters, and perfect hair-married to Andy, a successful attorney, has connections and money and level headed. She can open doors Shay cannot. Each have their own strengths. She and her son have a “not so close” and strained relationship. She is overprotective and controlling, due to Paul’s past behavior issues. First, let me say, I loved the front cover, and the summary, as I knew this would be a book, I had to read and have been saving it. It exceeded my expectations and more. A definite 5 Star +. This was my first book by Littlefield and cannot wait to read more, as love her style! Told from three POV (Shay, Colleen, and T.L), which I enjoyed as you learn the intimate thoughts, actions, reactions, and raw feelings from different viewpoints. There is sooooo much to this story, as a former whistleblower, I love uncovering misdeeds of large corporations as root for the underdog and those threatened. However, this was not just a story about the mishaps, cover-ups, and corruption of Hunter-Cole Energy. There is the Indian Reservation and land leases, and how these people have been taken advantage of. An innocent boy, with sins of the father and a past history of characters from the sheriff’s office to the Indian Reservation, which have been passed down to the next generation. Most importantly is the human interest side of the novel, written with great depth and vivid settings and descriptions, pulling the reader into this unsure world, not knowing who they can trust. This is no ordinary crime mystery. It is thought-provoking in so many ways and much left to the reader to draw conclusions. Littlefield skillfully crafts a riveting suspense which keeps you glued to the page with her well-developed characters. (A read in one setting kind of book). Block out the time, it is worth it! The dynamics between these two women (Shay and Colleen)—Award-winning!
Many young men are being drawn to North Dakota with the promise of money and becoming a man by working on Oasis Energy rigs. Two of the young men have disappeared and their mothers, Shay and Colleen, have come to Weir, North Dakota to find out the truth. They’re stonewalled by Oasis Energy who may have too much to hide, the police department, the townspeople, and they start to question each other. THE MISSING PLACE starts out very well and the reader is drawn into the anguish of both mothers. As they are blocked at every turn, their pain increases a hundred-fold. The writing is taut and gripping, but the suspense ends for the reader once the truth is revealed. The last part of the book, once everyone is back home, is a bit anticlimactic. I find it amazing how the behaviors and attitudes which have cost the characters so much persist once the drama unfolded. I did greatly appreciate the way the author approached the subject of learning disabilities and their effect on those afflicted and their loved ones. THE MISSING PLACE is, overall, engaging and dramatic with an important message about what the love of a mother truly means.
Sophie Littlefield delivers an intriguing story of deception and suspense in her latest novel, The Missing Place. Colleen is far from her privileged and wealthy Sudbury, Massachusetts home. She would have never imagined herself in the throes and nothingness of Lawton, North Dakota. A mild panic grips Colleen as her plane touches down and she arrives in the virtually dark terminal and realizes the rental car counter is closed. She tentatively approaches the man kneeling down by the exit in hopes of getting some answers. When she learns there are no cabs available and no rooms open at the (maybe) one or two hotels in town, Colleen pleads for a ride—a ride that would take her to (hopefully) civilization. Her husband Andy had warned her about going off half-cocked on this wild goose chase. However, nothing would stop her given the fact her son Paul has gone missing. Through a series of coincidences and perhaps divine guidance, Colleen is deposited on the broken-down doorstep of the RV where hard-worn Californian Shay has taken up residency. It would seem Shay’s son, Taylor, is also among the missing from Hunter-Cole Energy’s Black Creek camp. Both young men had a few things in common: they were definitely “newbie’s” as was their mutual indoctrination into the roughshod life of an oil rigger. It was a given they would find friendship in each other. What Colleen and Shay couldn’t know is the series of road blocks and multitude of dead ends that lay ahead of them in their mission they vowed never to give up on: to find their sons. Sophie Littlefield has written a compelling novel that truly captured the heart strings of this reader. Littlefield zeroed in on the premise of the horror and fear this mother never would want to experience: my child has gone missing. Ms. Littlefield develops her two main characters, Colleen and Shay—both mothers of missing sons, with a presence of absolute opposites; yet there is a sublime nuance they were destined to come together and they mesh in an awkward way because of the common bond of their missing sons. The pace of this story moves along nicely and Ms. Littleton has a stylistic balance of developing both dialogue and prose. She chooses her words wisely and focuses on everyday language that, in my opinion, makes for a fast and familiar read. Ms. Littleton demonstrates a natural ability of strategically sowing the seeds of her story as she gradually builds the plot from one chapter to the next. There is an abundance of emotion and reality to these women that is anchored in what it must be like to wonder what happened to her missing child. As Littlefield guides the reader throughout this story, I applaud her in tying up loose ends as the story winds down. The surprise ending will leave the reader with a satisfying sense of closure. I look forward to her next novel. Quill says: The Missing Place is a story devoted to a mother’s worst nightmare and the importance of never giving up hope.
I really enjoyed "The Missing Place" by Sophie Littlefield. There were so many elements to the story that I found to be unexpected and really enjoyable. I usually stay away with books that are a little to suspenseful because I don't like reading about children getting hurt. But I do think that the author balanced the tension in the book. Shay and Colleen were very different but they were both on the same mission-find their missing sons. This was my first time reading this author and I really enjoyed her storytelling and writing.