It can sometimes be more heartbreaking to feel loved and cared for when a loving presence has been absent from your life for a very long time. This is how it is for fourteen year-old Carey Blackburn. Ever since her unstable, drug-addicted mother abducted her from the custody of her father when she was four years old, Carey and her mute, six year-old sister Jenessa, have been living in an isolated camper in the Obed Wild and Scenic National Park deep inside the Tennessee backwoods. In the opening chapter of If You Find Me, Carey's father and a social worker find her and Jenessa, after their mother alerts authorities to their location in the forest and abandons them. Carey has been forced to grow up and give up her own childhood to be Nessa's protector, provider, caretaker, and filter. Despite the depravity of the situation, Carey, especially, is reticent and fearful to leave the only home the girls have ever known.
Carey and Nessa are taken to her father's home and folded into a new baffling life with toothbrushes, indoor tubs, new clothes, clean beds, haircuts. Her father and his lovely wife, Melissa, treat the girls with utmost care, slowly, tenderly helping them feel safe and loved and wanted. This makes the absence of care in their former lives even more acute and painful. Until they have something else to contrast it against, the girls don't realize the neglect and abuse they have suffered; the realization is heartbreaking.
As Carey begins to navigate a brand new world of family, high school, friendship, and romance, she prays that it will not be taken away. She pleads, "Please don't let me wake up. Please, Saint Joseph, don't let this be a dream. Let me have this. Help me to know how to have this. Don't let us wake up cold and hungry I may not deserve it, but Jenessa does."
As Carey and Nessa try to adjust to their new lives, painful memories surface in a series of ongoing flashbacks. At times these are almost too harsh to take and will haunt readers for a very long time. But there is one particular dark secret that Carey cannot bring herself to address and is not revealed until the final pages. This secret threatens her with shame and might have Carey lose everything she has newly receivedher father, a family, a boy, a friend who knows and love her.
The writing in If You Find Me is lovely, but it is the compelling story and the deep underground stream of powerful emotions that make it shine.
At the same time, not everything in the story works as well; the abundance of similes didn't always gel and occasionally took me out of the story. And sometimes Carey seems a little too perfect to be true; stunningly beautiful despite the years of malnutrition and lack of dental care, self-educated above her age and grade level with out-of-date thrift store textbooks, an accomplished violinist, having had only her abusive, drug-addicted mother, who used to play violin in the symphony, as a teacher. But for the most part, this compelling, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story shines brightly enough to make up for these flaws.
Emily Murdock has created her protagonist as a survivor fierce, proud, and tender. Carey is incredibly resilient given what she's been through. Readers will cry with her, root for her, follow her to the terrible center of the dark secret she must confront before she can truly begin her life again.
I would recommend If You Find Me for older teens and adults who appreciate dark, realistic young-adult fiction.
This review was originally published in June 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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