The Missing by Tim Gautreaux

The Missing is a sprawling book that takes in the horrors of childhood, the aftermath of a world war, river life on thethe missing Mississippi River, and the beginnings of the jazz age.

Sam Simoneaux is an intended World War I soldier who lucks out of the war – he lands in France the day of the armistice, and is both relieved and dismayed that he doesn’t get to fight.  However, after he spends a brief period of time in a hospital witnessing the wounds of war, his unit is assigned the thankless task of destroying a field of unexploded bombs.  A thoughtless shot with a cannon destroys a house and injures a young girl, who surprisingly forgives Sam for this.

Flash forward a few years – Sam is married and has a coveted job as a floorwalker in one of New Orleans’ nicest department stores.  His career ends quickly when a small girl named Lily Weller is abducted from the store during his shift.  Sam feels the responsibility of this even after his boss fires him.  The girl’s parents and older brother work on an excursion steamboat, and Sam lands a job there, with the intent of finding their daughter.

As the boat plies its promises of hot dance music and a good time to various towns on the river, Sam works the multitasking life of a third mate and occasionally plays piano with the jazz band.  In his spare time, he also scouts out and meets the family of unsavories that kidnapped the little girl and lives through the encounter fairly unscathed.  The girl’s father does not; he also ventures into their territory, and is hurt badly enough for the hospital.  He later dies from his injuries, and Sam endures a fresh set of blame from the widow.

A chance encounter with a station agent gives Sam a lead in finding the little girl and her “new” family, but it turns out that recovering her becomes more complicated, as her kidnappers aren’t out of the picture just yet.  In addition, Sam has some scores to settle from his own past.

I had read one of Tim Gautreaux’s earlier books almost ten years ago called The Clearing.  As I recall, it was well-written but pretty grisly.  The Missing doesn’t pull any punches, either.  Its world is the frontier-like towns of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers of the early 1920s, and the back country surrounding them.  This world is an unforgiving one, and its people are hard and unflinching.  There are several characters here to whom you wouldn’t want to turn your back.

In contrast to the often dismal and scary settings and tone, there’s the inklings of a new style of music, and it’s this music that sustains Sam and the Wellers as fate tries them from every angle.

I liked this novel very much.  We have it in paper copy and as an ebook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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