Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
I Feel The Earth Move
By Roxanne Fequiere
If you’ve spent a decent amount of time on Twitter—and if you haven’t, I suggest you keep it that way—you’ve probably seen some pithy variation on the notion that being “a fan of true crime” doesn’t count as a personality trait. As ubiquitous as the genre is, from podcasts to movies, docuseries, podcasts, book releases, and (I can’t stress this enough) podcasts, the message seems to chide the poor shmucks who think that an attraction to lurid tales of crime makes them somehow unusual. We’re all rubberneckers, and judging from the medium-hopping success of books like Caroline Kepnes’ You, which I struggled to get through during my month of scary reads, we’re just as eager to dive into a fictional treatments of criminal activity, too.
That said, when does our collective fascination with crime begin? At what point does a young reader’s attention shift from hair-raising stories of the Goosebumps variety to chilling considerations of how crime wreaks havoc on its victims? As a child who was given nearly free rein when it came to consuming books, I bounced from the children’s room to YA section to the adult books, reading voraciously and trying to process my thoughts as best my young mind could at the time. For better or worse, I didn’t transition into more adult topics so much as pinball back and forth between juvenile and mature reading material, returning to the subject matter that gave me pause over and over again, trying to grasp what I hadn’t during the last read-through.
And there were few books I read more often as a kid than Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton.
Ordered through the monthly Troll Book Club catalog at some point during the ’90s, the premise drew me in: what if you saw your own face staring back at you from the back of a milk carton, advertised as a missing child when all you’d ever known was a happy, normal upbringing? When I actually read the book, I found several more layers: Janie Johnson, the main character, in addition to reckoning with a truth that rocks the very foundation of her personal history, is caught up with all the struggles of being fifteen. There’s school, the desire to feel as sophisticated as other girls, and Reeve, the boy next door who’s quickly becoming more than just a friend.
All of these elements combined to create a story that, in short, blew my mind. Re-reading the book as an adult was a bit of a surreal experience—I’d read it so often as a child that processing the words again felt like getting dropped off in a deeply familiar neck of the woods, complete with self-made, well-trodden paths leading me to precise imagery I’d dreamt up years earlier; involuntary reactions to passages I’d practically memorized. I remembered the taboo thrill and tension that accompanied scenes in which Janie and Reeve contemplate having sex, the distinct longing for what appeared to be the endless giddy fun and casual glamour of being a teenager.
That is, if you’re not wondering what role your beloved parents may have played in your own kidnapping, of course. Since I’d read the book countless times already, the plot’s twists and turns were expected, but on this front, I couldn’t quite access my childhood take on them. Too much time had passed, too many things had been learned, too many true crime narratives had been digested.
The Hare Krishna movement is described as a dangerous and manipulative cult, which I’m sure I glossed over as a child, but now elicited a hearty “Huh?” (Some cursory research reveals that the movement has been sued by parents of members for brainwashing.) Janie’s drawn-out process of collecting snippets of information about her past now amounts to the kind of research she could accomplish in a day with the help of a laptop and a good Wi-Fi connection.
Perhaps the biggest shift in my perception of the book—one that I didn’t notice until I was already partway through—is the ways in which the premise no longer seems quite so outlandish. After discovering a different version of her own birth certificate a couple of years ago, my mother is currently struggling to parse snippets of her own early childhood, reexamining memories that never quite made sense to her but were too hazy with each passing year to pin down. The process is ongoing, but difficult.
To be clear, no crimes were committed in my mother’s case, but when adults make decisions that affect children’s lives, they all too often rely on the hope that a child’s innocence and ignorance will somehow persist indefinitely. The fallacy of that belief results in personally world-altering discoveries more frequently than I realized while I was devouring The Face on the Milk Carton time after time. Still, I’m grateful to the story and others like it, even as they scandalize their young readers. At some point, bogeymen and monsters under the bed must be traded for real-world unpleasantries—better that it be introduced under the guise of fiction rather than dumped into our laps as a harsh reality.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.