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Review: Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander

on January 28, 2019

Half Moon Lake 
Kirsten Alexander
Bantam (Penguin Random House AUS)
2019, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Inspired by the true story of a missing child who when eventually found was claimed by two mothers, Half Moon Lake is a captivating novel about the parent-child bond, identity, and what it really means to be part of a family.

On a summer’s day in southern Louisiana, 1913, Sonny Davenport wanders away from his family’s vacation home at Half Moon Lake and doesn’t come back.

John Henry and Mary Davenport search for their child across the state and throughout the South. John Henry offers an enormous reward for Sonny’s return. Mary turns to spiritualists and occultists. Tom McCabe, a reporter at The St. Landry Clarion, becomes unhealthily attached to Mary and John Henry. After years of crushing disappointments following hope, Sonny is found with a peddler in Alabama. But the Davenports’ joy at finding their son is cut short when another woman, unwed domestic worker Grace Mill, claims the boy is hers.

As the two mothers fight to claim the child, people choose sides, testing loyalties, the notion of truth, and the meaning of the word family.

Half Moon Lake is a work of fiction. There is, however, a fascinating true story that inspired the novel – that of American boy Bobby Dunbar.

I wasn’t aware of the Bobby Dunbar case before I received this book but it makes for some fascinating reading. And it’s truly a great inspiration for a fictional story. It’s 1913 in America’s Deep South – there are rumblings in Europe but America is far removed from all of that. The Davenport family are wealthy and successful, well known in their small town. They are spending the summer at their lake house and John Henry is an enthusiast of the Scout teachings. He’s determined that his boys enjoy freedom to learn and survive and so the three of them – George who is 7, Paul who is 6 and young Sonny who is 4 – head into the woods alone for some fun and games. The problem is, only George and Paul return and there is no sign of Sonny. A search turns up nothing and eventually the Davenports are forced to return to their house. Going on with their lives is impossible and John Henry spends his time criss-crossing the southern states, following up leads and sightings. Mary spirals downward, lost in her grief, willing to do anything that might be able to help her find her boy.

Over one hundred years ago, trying to find a missing child is a very different campaign. There isn’t TV and social media to spam the entire country with pictures. There isn’t a way for people who claim to have a sighting to snap a quick picture and send it to the police. Instead John Henry and the Sheriff must travel (usually by train) to each location where there’s a credible sighting, something where the person gives them information that means it might be more than just a hoax. For two years it comes to nothing, until apparently, Sonny is found with a tramp or drifter. Or is he?

Likewise, there’s no way to confirm that the found child is Sonny. Not beyond his parents looking at him and going well yes, that’s our child. But it’s been over two years and Sonny would’ve aged from 4 to 6 and spent most of that time on the road probably without regular food, perhaps with rough treatment. These days it would be confirmed with a simple DNA test and there’d be absolutely no room for error but the word of John Henry and Mary seems to be enough. When someone else comes forward and claims the child as hers, the court case against the tramp also expands to include who will be given the right of custody to the child but it’s another example of everything that is wrong in a have and have not society. John Henry and Mary are wealthy and extremely well regarded in their society. The man who was found with the child who may or may not be Sonny is a drifter and the woman who claims that he is her child is an unwed mother of two. You get to see all sorts of lawyer’s tricks and the judge is enough to make anyone despair of anything remotely resembling a ‘justice’ system.

An underlying question is how far will someone go in order to make the person they love happy? How far will they go to ‘fix’ their family and try and make it whole again, even at the expense of others? To lose a child would be such a heartbreaking thing I cannot even imagine it – but to lose a child and not know what happened to them. Is that even worse? To imagine all sorts of horrors – Louisiana is swamp territory so there’s the prospect of alligators. A general theory during the search for Sonny that he was snatched up by a tramp near the railway line and there’s all sorts of terrible places a parent’s mind could go with that. And then there’s just not being able to find him and the reality of leaving him behind. Is it possible that you’d do anything to fill that void, even claim someone else’s child despite having a little niggle of doubt that it’s your own son? Two years is a long time and a sighting after that must’ve seemed like a miracle. Mary is a desperate woman who isn’t whole without Sonny. And John Henry seems to be the sort of man who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, something that is made very clear by the end of the book. He seems this unassuming sort of man in the beginning, although he’s clearly full of privilege in the way of white, wealthy men. This becomes more obvious in the way that he doesn’t see anyone who doesn’t fit into his bracket – they don’t matter, they’re barely even human.

I really enjoyed this – the cover is moody and eye catching and I think the story captures the setting well. It was a very different time in so many ways and this is all reflected with skill. Kirsten Alexander is a promising novelist to watch and I’ll be very keen to read her next offering.


Book #16 of 2019

Half Moon Lake is the 3rd book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019


2 responses to “Review: Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander

  1. Reading this novel right now!

  2. […] Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander. My review. […]

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