Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback Edition – 2 January 2019)
Length: 320 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Debuting Australian author Kirsten Alexander presents a dramatic, captivating and hard-hitting novel of desperation and loss loosely based around a real and shocking historical event.
In the summer of 1913, a young boy, Sonny Davenport, walks into the woods around his family’s summer home at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, and never returns. Despite a widespread search of the surrounding area by an army of volunteers, no trace of the boy can be found. As the search grows in volume, the disappearance becomes headline news across the country, especially as Sonny’s parents, John Henry and Mary Davenport, are wealthy and influential members of their home town of Opelousas. For the next two years, the Davenports engage in a desperate hunt for Sonny across the south, offering a massive reward for information on their missing son. But with no substantiated leads, the Davenports slowly lose hope and Mary sinks more and more into her despair.
However, just when everything seems lost, a boy matching Sonny’s description is found wandering around several southern towns in the company of a tramp. As the world watches, Mary meets the child and claims that he is Sonny. But is he truly her missing son? There are a number of differences between the two boys and many are convinced that the Davenports have taken in the wrong child and the real Sonny is still out there.
As the people of Opelousas, including many of the Davenport’s friends and servants, debate the true identity of this young boy, a kidnapping trial for the tramp begins. However, the proceedings are thrown into chaos when Grace Mills, an unwed farm worker, arrives in town, claiming that the boy is her son.
This is an outstanding first book from Alexander, who has created a powerful and memorable story based partially around real-life events. Half Moon Lake is a fantastic and dramatic story that dives deep into the hearts and psyche of its characters and the historical elements of the time to create a lasting impact on the reader. I was very surprised about how addictive I found this book to be, as the intense character emotions and the dramatic actions that they take to alleviate their grief and the grief of their loved ones was just incredible. I am still reeling from several of the revelations and developments that occurred towards the end of the book, many of which will stick with me for a long time.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that is partially based on a real-life historical event, the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, which took place in America’s south in the early 20th century. Bobby Dunbar disappeared when he was four. After months of searching, a young boy was found some distance away who appeared similar to Bobby and was claimed by Bobby’s parents, despite many people voicing their doubts about the boy’s true identity. In addition, a second woman attempted to claim the child as her own son, and a legal case was initiated to determine the identity of the child. I was unfamiliar with the Bobby Dunbar case before I read Half Moon Lake and did not look up the details of it until after I finished the book. As a result, I was amazed that the intense story was so closely based on a real story. This case and its eventual results are absolutely fascinating, and I felt that Alexander did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this event and installing it within her story.
For example, the author does an excellent job of portraying the probable emotions, feelings and opinions of people who would have been involved in the real-life disappearance, as she utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout her book. Readers of Half Moon Lake get a great idea of the despair all of the parents in this story would have experienced, the fear and confusion of the children, and the bewilderment and conflicted emotion of everyone else involved in the case. I felt that Alexander’s portrayal of the missing child’s mother was done particularly well, as the readers gets to see her so filled with realistic fear, grief and despair that it drives her to try and claim a child that might not even be hers. I also quite enjoyed the way that the author explored the highly publicised nature of the child’s disappearance and how the media at the time covered the case, dividing those following the case as they try to determine the true fate of the missing child and the real identity of the discovered child. I also loved the way that the author looked at how the media scrutiny of the time might have affected the individuals involved in the case, and how this could have potentially influenced their actions and decisions.
I also really liked the way that the period’s ideas of class came into effect during this book. There are some key examinations of the different ways that the rich and the poor were treated during this time, and how this would have impacted the investigation, the search for the missing child, the media scrutiny and overall results of the big trial that served as an important scene at the end of the book. Also significant and intriguing was the way in which Alexander looked at how concerns for personal and familial reputations might have come into these events, resulting in several characters undertaking various actions that they knew to be wrong, all in the name of protecting someone’s social standing and reputation. The story is set in America’s south during the early 20th century, and as such there are a number of African American characters who are involved with the case. Race and the perception of certain ethnicities came into this book a lot more than I thought it would, and I thought that Alexander did a fantastic job capturing how these characters might have been ignored or disciplined for trying to get involved in proceedings. All of these elements result in an amazing historical tapestry which forms an excellent setting for this story.
Overall, this is an amazing debut from Australian author Kirsten Alexander, who uses the inspiration of a fascinating real-life case to craft an epic and powerful story. There are so many great story elements spread throughout Half Moon Lake, as the character’s emotions and despair drive them to desperate and immoral acts. It features a narrative that is at times sad and at other times darn right appalling, and several reveals and character decisions at the end of the book will leave you shocked and will stick in your mind long after you finish reading it. I loved this spectacular first book from Alexander and I am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.