Prather’s Pick: Lost and found
This week’s novel was inspired by the true story of Bobby Dunbar, a four-old Louisiana boy who was lost in the mid-1910s. “Lost Boy Found,” this week’s novel, about another lost boy, is a work of fiction. Author Kirsten Alexander writes that all parts of the novel are imagined. Even Opelousas and Half Moon Lake in Louisiana, although real places, are fictionalized—even to exact geographical locations.
Alexander first learned of the Bobby Dunbar story from Tal McThenia’s “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar,” “This American Life” radio documentary was originally broadcast in 2008. Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright also wrote “A Case for Solomon :Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping that Haunted a Nation” in 2012.
In this week’s novel, the wealthy Davenport family is staying at their summer home at Half Moon Lake. Their main home is in Opelousas. It is July, and John Henry and Mary Davenport are entertaining guests, Ira Heaton, his wife Gladys, and her mother Mrs. Billingham. The home is well-staffed with a cook, butler, housekeeper Esmeralda, and Nanny Nelly.
John Henry and Mary’s three sons are headed for the forest. John Henry is instructing them on an aspect of “Scouting for Boys,” but Mary is concerned for their safety. George (7), Paul (6), and Sonny (4) are too young to be out on their own, but John Henry believes they need to adventure.
At noon, Mary’s fears come to pass. George and Paul walk back up the hill without Sonny. They couldn’t find him. John Henry and Ira scour the forest, but they can’t find him either. They call the sheriff, and he and three deputies arrive from Opelousas with dogs. They are certain that the boy can be found before dark. But they can’t find him.
Others get word. They arrive from surrounding towns and farms—even from a showboat. Everyone searches through the night. Later they bed down in the house and outdoors.
The next afternoon reporter Tom McCabe and photographer Eddie Dale arrive at the lake. They’re working on a story for “St. Landry Clarion.” (They figure into the events that follow during the plot to follow.)
The search goes on. More reporters arrive. Eventually a two-thousand-dollar reward is promised to any person who can deliver the boy. Six months pass. Mary is in the care of a nurse. Some believe that her grief has turned to madness. The family receives sacks full of mail offering tips. Finally, two years pass.
Meanwhile, in Magnolia, Mississippi, 145 miles north of Opelousas, Grace Hill is living with Harry Cavett and his wife Loretta. Grace has a son Ned who is mute. She is expecting another child soon, and the pregnancy is difficult. Gideon Wolf, a tramp, is working at the farm. When he gets ready to leave, he offers to take Ned with him. He will bring him back in five weeks. But he doesn’t. Then the sheriff gets a tip that Gideon and a boy are in Opelousas. The woman is sure the boy is Sonny Davenport.
Now two women claim the boy. A trial follows.
This is a haunting story. “Lost Boy Found” is published by Grand Central Publishing (2020). The paperback book costs $16.99.
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