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Don't lose the kids: Two novels prey on parents' worst fears
Fiction

Don't lose the kids: Two novels prey on parents' worst fears

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There’s a reason authors write about young people in peril: Readers can relate to the stories either because they were once that age or because they have children of their own to worry about.

In two summer novels, “Sycamore” and “Do Not Become Alarmed,” young people are most definitely facing dangerous situations.

In “Sycamore, author Bryn Chancellor takes a chance by creating separate narrators for each chapter. When different people tell you different parts of a story, it can be compelling or it can be irritating. Luckily for readers, Chancellor’s approach proves to be more of the former. Early on, I wanted to know what happened when Jess Winters disappears.

At 17, Winters is new to the town of Sycamore, Ariz., where her mother had fled from Phoenix after a divorce. Jess is tall for her age, and starting a new high school in the middle of junior year isn’t easy. She is quickly dubbed “Phoenix girl.”

But just as we’re introduced to her, Chancellor jumps forward in time to a college professor out for a walk. It’s that professor, Laura Drennan, who will help uncover Jess’ fate.

It’s the girl’s disappearance that makes up the heart of the story. Everyone in the small town knows Jess’ name, and Chancellor takes time in threading the relationships between the teen and newfound friends, acquaintances and even peripheral characters who have something to say about the town and the times.

Jess’ mom, Maud, is a mail carrier who is resigned to knowing she may never know just what happened on the stormy night she saw her daughter for the last time. Hard of hearing since childhood, Maud also wonders what might have been had she heard her daughter slip out of the house.

“As she pulled letters and flats from the crook of her arm and slid them into the correct slots, she clenched her teeth until her jaw bulged. Mornings like this, she wished the right ear would go all the way, too; in her darker moments, she fantasized about jamming a pick in the canal. ... She’d stopped wearing her hearing aid years ago because it amplified the din instead of tuning it in, and because it didn’t help with the one voice she could not stop hearing.”

Chancellor expertly takes us through Jess’ days as she makes her way in the vicious social circles of high school, makes and loses a first friend and then makes a longer-lived connection with a girl named Dani.

At times, readers may need to flip back a few pages to determine who’s telling the story. Maud? Dani? A teacher who befriends some students?

Chancellor takes readers beyond a standard whodunit and provides a more compelling take on what the experience does to the town.

The situation is not as cut-and-dried in “Do Not Become Alarmed,” in which six children belonging to three couples go missing on a shore excursion during a Central American ocean cruise.

Two of the couples, who are close friends, are from the U.S.; the third is an Argentinian couple they meet aboard the ship. Once the children vanish, while the men are golfing and the women are with the children, the finger-pointing begins. Liv, the mother of Penny and Sebastian, blames Nora, who wandered away with the handsome young guide and thought Liv would watch her children. Nora feels guilty but also blames Liv for falling asleep.

Liv “knew that Nora must be suffering the tortures of the damned for wandering off looking for quetzals with the flirty guide, but all she could think was that Nora, her best friend, her almost-sister, should suffer.”

Meanwhile, two husbands, Benjamin and Raymond, feel their own guilt for going on a golfing expedition neither was that thrilled to join.

Author Maile Meloy alternates chapters so readers can also see how the coddled kids of suburban America are faring when they must use their wits to find the way back to their parents. And they do better than expected, sensing when opportunities come along that they must grab them to reach safety again.

Meloy finely illustrates the relationship among the children — Penny protective of diabetic brother Sebastian; Marcus watching over 6-year-old June; and Isabel, an Argentinian teenager caught on the cusp between being a girl and a woman.

Both authors make kids in peril a readable topic — although happy endings are not in all the characters’ cards. But if you like a touch of realism in fiction, both of these novels can claim your approval.

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Amanda St. Amand is the digital editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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