Half Moon Lake…
About the Book:
‘They said he was their boy. And so he was . . .’
In 1913, on a summer’s day at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, four-year-old Sonny Davenport walks into the woods and never returns.
The boy’s mysterious disappearance from the family’s lake house makes front-page news in their home town of Opelousas. John Henry and Mary Davenport are wealthy and influential, and will do anything to find their son. For two years, the Davenports search across the South, offer increasingly large rewards and struggle not to give in to despair.
Then, at the moment when all hope seems lost, the boy is found in the company of a tramp.
But is he truly Sonny Davenport? The circumstances of his discovery raise more questions than answers. And when Grace Mill, an unwed farm worker, travels from Alabama to lay claim to the child, newspapers, townsfolk, even the Davenports’ own friends, take sides.
As the tramp’s kidnapping trial begins, and two desperate mothers fight for ownership of the boy, the people of Opelousas discover that truth is more complicated than they’d ever dreamed . . .
Half Moon Lake is Kirsten Alexander’s compelling debut novel, about the parent-child bond, identity, and what it means to be part of a family.
‘The world had a long history of people convincing themselves that children forget.’
Imagine having a child go missing. A very young child, no trace of them to be found. Imagine then that your missing child was claimed by someone else, someone with more wealth and power than you. Someone you couldn’t fight. Half Moon Lake tells a story just like this.
‘I want them to hand him back to his mother. I’ve heard you wax lyrical about the rights of the poor people before. And Grace Mill is one of them. John Henry is sincere – yeah, of course he is. He sincerely wants his life to go back to normal. But you can’t put their needs above hers because you like them better.’
Half Moon Lake is moodily atmospheric, a portrait of life in the American South in the early 1900s. A time and a place in which you didn’t want to be anything other than white and wealthy. I really loved this story but I hated what happened in it so much. It’s a truly mesmerising novel, beautifully written with such a strong sense of time and place. When I finished reading it, I felt such an overwhelming wave of sadness and anger. The grains of truth that run through this story are enough to make me weep over the injustice of it.
‘Even more painful than his absence was the idea of him with another person, someone who mistreated him, starved and frightened him. It had almost been better to imagine him wandering alone.’
In the beginning of this novel, John Henry and Mary Davenport are distraught at the disappearance of their four year old son, Sonny Davenport. A search commences, thorough and widespread, but nothing comes of it. My sympathies peaked with the Davenports as time slid by and still no reappearance of Sonny. As Mary became more bereaved, John Henry seemed to become more determined. Searching for Sonny was time consuming, often requiring travel interstate, by train. Police had to rely on hazy descriptions, sketches and people who would often change their story when pressed. After two years, it seemed likely the Davenports were never going to see their son again. Searching for a missing child in the early 20th century was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Then a miracle seems to occur. A child that fits Sonny’s description has been sighted, in the company of a tramp, and picked up by the police. The Davenports rush interstate to see the child and confirm if he is theirs. From this point on, my sympathy for the Davenports evaporated and was replaced with disgust.
‘Mrs Bird cocked her head, mystified. Mrs Davenport appeared to be in as much need of comforting as the child. Sheriff Bird remained silent. Sheriff Sherman placed the lam on the mantle. He had high regard for Mrs Davenport and could see she was overcome, but it was strange for a mother to be unable to tell if a boy was hers, and for mother and child to both be reduced to tears by their reunion. The conclusion was clear, and he now considered how to get the Davenports from the house to the inn with as little fuss as possible.’
Despite neither mother nor child recognising each other, Mary Davenport claims this boy as her Sonny.
‘Our son may not have returned to us in exact form, but this boy is ours in essence. He’s our reward for years of searching and suffering.’
We’ve already up to this point been getting a strong vibe throughout the novel on what Southern society was like in this era. Racism abounds, there are so many poor people living as tramps, children are picked up and trafficked via orphan trains, sold ‘to good homes’, or more likely, to those who want free labour. If you are coloured, you are less than human. If you are poor, you are not worthy of notice. If you are a woman who is poor and also an unwed mother with two children to different fathers, then you certainly don’t rate at all. You are nothing. And no one will let you forget it. What humans have the capacity to do to each other should really no longer astound or horrify me, yet it still does. The abuse of power within this novel was so entrenched, the discrimination so present and ingrained.
‘Grace threw the pillow away from her, knocking a painting off-kilter. What kind of people – Oh, but she knew. She’d known them all her life. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t had to bite her tongue, deny her needs, placate insecure people who held power over her, when she hadn’t had to hide her strength and lower her eyes. Restraint. Passivity. She’d behaved as they’d told her to from the time she was a child: had been grateful, hadn’t fussed or taken more than she deserved. She’d laboured for a pittance, and known none of life’s ease, while others were born on a mountain of gold. And now her son – her son – stolen. Who would design a world of such cruel unfairness? Who had deemed Mary more important than Grace?’
What really made my skin crawl was the behind doors schemes, the obvious quest to pervert the course of justice. How some people sleep at night, I’ll never know. Have times changed? One would hope so, but who really knows unless you have the misfortune of getting caught up in a legal ramification. It was one thing for John Henry and Mary to lie. The accused Tramp was also not a surprise, he was after saving his own neck in the end. But a judge? Lawyers? It was an absolute disgrace.
‘Sheriff Sherman walked outside slowly, disturbed by what he’d witnessed. He’d met plenty of criminals who considered adherence to truth and laws as optional, but it was troubling to watch people in power do so. If laws weren’t followed by the very people who wrote and enforced them, then what use were they?’
I probably judged Mary harsher than John Henry in the end. I can’t fathom how one mother could take the child of another mother away. The boy she claimed as Sonny was not an orphan, and she knew full well. And what of your own child? Never knowing what had happened, if he was out there somewhere, still waiting for you to find him? To just accept another child in his place, to steal from another what had been stolen from you; what a despicable woman.
‘Such a violent outburst disappointed but did not surprise either of them. Mary Davenport, despite any kindness she’d shown Esmeralda, was the same as every rich white person: enraged and hurt when confronted with the idea that the world and everything in it was not hers for the having.’
‘Their moment of scandal would be forgotten, papered over by their good deeds, generous hosting and John Henry’s professional achievements. The needed only to stay the course, to live the lives into which they’d been born. For it was too exhausting for Opelousas to forever refresh its distrust and disappointment when it was clear the world was built for people like the Davenports, built to give and forgive them everything.’
Half Moon Lake is a story of injustice, of the haves and have nots. It’s an excellent novel, extremely thought provoking, harrowing at times. I was enraged even as I read the final sentence – the author will know why!
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of Half Moon Lake for review.
About the Author:
Kirsten Alexander was born in San Francisco, raised in Brisbane, and now lives in Melbourne with her partner and two sons. Half Moon Lake is her first published novel.
Half Moon Lake
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released on 2nd January 2019