The Missing by Tim Gautreaux. Knopf Double Publishing Group, 2009. 384 pages.
This is a novel that seems to vibrate in your hands. It is filled with sounds, smells and the bittersweet beauty of a vanquished time — the Mississippi on a moonlit night as the Ambassador, an aging four-decker steamboat, churns slowly downstream occasionally shattering the night with its strident whistle. The heart of the ship contains a vast Texas dance floor where more than 1,000 dancers can alternately sway and swing to blues and jazz. It is the golden age of riverboats (circa 1920s), a time when crowds stood expectantly on the docks of a hundred towns along the Mississippi, waiting for a grand old steamer that would sweep them from their dull lives into a night filled with music and laughter.
But, I’m getting ahead of the story. First, we must bring our hero home from the threats of a deserted (but heavily mined) battlefield in France and a fateful meeting with a frightened child whose face haunts his dreams.
Gautreaux’s protagonist, “Lucky” Sam Simonaux, returned from WWI to his wife and his personal dream job — the floorwalker in Krines, a gigantic New Orleans department store, a place where he has learned to move with grace and efficiency through each of the four floors, watching for shoplifters, drunks and trouble. He does his job well; life is good and the future is bright until ... the day a 3-year-old child, Lily Weller, is kidnapped from Krines. Despite the fact that Sam is injured in his attempt to stop the kidnappers, he is held responsible by his employer and is fired.
In truth, Sam broods about his failure to save Lily, and decides to launch his own search — a decision that leads him to leave his wife in New Orleans and seek employment on the Ambassador where the child’s parents, Ted and Elsie Weller, are employed as musicians. Sam’s logic is that Lily was stolen by someone who saw her performing with her parents (the 3-year-old has been taught to dance and sing) on the old steamboat at one of the river towns. That turns out to be a vast area that runs from Louisiana to Ohio.
For almost six months, Sam fails to find a trace of Lily; however, in the meantime, he becomes an accomplished pianist and learns to love the Ambassador’s special blend of funky jazz and blues. Then, abruptly, a series of random events (including an observant ticket clerk) leads Sam to Lily’s abductors — a wealthy, childless couple, Willa and Acy White, who had employed a degenerate family of outlaws, the Skadlocks, to steal Lily.
In the months following the kidnapping, the Whites have attempted to create another identity for the child. They shower Lily with presents, rename her “Madeline” and strive to convince her that her parents are dead. As the months pass, Lily’s memory of her parents begins to fade, and she begins to change, acquiring the opinions and prejudices of her “new parents.”
Eventually, Sam Simonaux finds himself forced to make a decision that has tragic results. Ted, Lily’s father, becomes impatient with Sam’s cautious investigation of the Skadlocks and ventures into the wilderness where the outlaws live. It is a trip that costs him his life. Eventually, Sam finds his way to the home of Lily’s abductors. However, upon secretly witnessing their wealth, he begins to feel that Lily has advantages and a future that her natural parents could never provide. Instead of confronting her abductors and reclaiming the child, Sam decides to returns to the Ambassador and tells the grieving mother that his lead to Lily had turned out to be a wild goose chase. It is only after Sam’s return to New Orleans that he confesses the truth to his wife; she forces him to tell Lily’s mother the truth. Both Elsie and her son, August, are outraged and demand that Sam help them get Lily back.
Finally, Sam, now repentant of his mistake, takes Lily’s brother, August, and makes a desperate journey to confront the Whites. Ironically, in the meanwhile, the Skadlocks have stolen Lily again, confident that the Whites cannot report the second kidnapping without revealing their part in the initial abduction. Their intention is to sell Lily to the Whites again! In the ensuing events, Sam finally rescues Lily and returns her to her mother, but it is a belated reunion. Within a few months, Elsie Weller will die in an influenza epidemic. It also becomes evident that the lapse of time (almost a year) has done Lily considerable harm.
At this point, The Missing undergoes an astonishing change. Tim Gautreaux does not bring his novel to a conclusion, but adds a second plot that expands and enriches the original. Throughout the search for Lily Weller, Sam Simonaux has frequently behaved in a perplexing manner. His ambiguous attitude toward parent-child relationships acquires significance when Sam reveals a secret and undertakes yet another journey.
When Sam Simonaux was six months old, his entire family was murdered by a savage band of outlaws. Sam escaped only because his father threw him into an old stove just before a virtual hurricane of bullets destroyed the house and killed his parents and his brothers and sister. His Uncle Claude found Sam in the stove the following day and raised him. For all of his life, “Lucky Sam” had felt a strange detachment about his family’s fate.
However, with the death of Lily’s parents, he feels an impulse to confront his own tragedy. Now, he returns to talk to his Uncle Claude and learn the truth about his family’s massacre; he will then go to confront the murderers, the Cloats: a family so bestial, their crimes are legendary.
Although the journey to reclaim Lily (who has much in common with the face that has always haunted Lucky Sam’s dreams) is tense and suspenseful, Sam’s final journey is riveting. It is not only a journey for justice, it is also an odyssey of self-discovery. When this last confrontation is over, Sam will return to claim the only object his father left him — a violin. He will also claim his adopted daughter, Lily, and he will devote the rest of his life striving to restore the gift of music that he knows is within her.