Cast into a foreign landscape of North Dakota’s oil fields, two mothers attempt the impossible in a corporate wilderness where expedience and profit render their missing sons expendable, just two more temporary workers in the fields, warehoused in barracks after grueling rotating shifts. It’s as brutal an environment as the legendary mining towns of the Old West, a boomtown of modern enterprise filled with young men willing to work long, backbreaking shifts. They sleep in “man camps,” housing constructed of shipping containers easily assembled and dismantled as the need arises and the camps move on. The North Dakota countryside is barren and ice-covered, dotted with the detritus of industry then left to be reclaimed by the snow, as though the camps never existed.
Both Paul Mitchell and Taylor Capparelli disappeared at the same time, both working for Hunter-Cole Energy and staying in the same utilitarian quarters. Two mothers have come to find their sons—Shay Capparelli from northern California and Colleen Mitchell from Boston—only to be rebuffed by authorities and supervisors unwilling to answer questions, stonewalling any whiff of scandal or bad publicity. In a company town with virtually no rooms for rent, Shay has managed to get the use of a small trailer adjoining a local homeowner’s yard. When Colleen Mitchell arrives, without any idea where to go or where she might stay, the kindness of a stranger delivers her to Shay’s door. The two mothers couldn’t be more dissimilar yet are united in their love for their sons. Thinking two might be more formidable than one, Shay allows Colleen to share the cramped quarters, making a bed from a tiny table that converts for extra sleeping room.
This is the poignant tale of these two women, Shay and Colleen, and how their deep, wild love for their boys gives them the courage to persevere, to unearth the truth in a landscape rife with secrecy and coercion. Radically mismatched, the verbally colorful Shay uses her feminine wiles to attract the interest of men she wants to question, her volatile temper often ruining the slender opportunities for gleaning information from reluctant strangers. Colleen, on the other hand, is willing to pay for what she needs, be it information or good will, frustrated by Shay’s prideful resistance to using her checkbook to ease the way (Shay has had to work for everything), often obtuse in her demands of others but less intimidating when asking strangers to share what little they know about the boys. Trapped together in the freezing trailer, sharing intimate space and private truths, Shay and Colleen are bound by determination, facing unfathomable grief in the face of loss.
Throughout the unfolding drama, from the early stages of panic to the exhaustion of too many closed doors and no answers, Littlefield captures the overwhelming sense of isolation in the freezing North Dakota landscape, vast fields scoured of natural resources then left behind. The howling winds carry the voices of two young men calling for mothers who cannot find them, the desperate women hammering vainly against a wall of silence erected by those afraid of losing their jobs and the private fears of a young man carrying a terrible secret, a lifetime instinct for survival, and an otherness that defines his choices.
While the missing sons are the fulcrum for the unfolding tragedy, the interactions between Shay and Colleen create the tension that hums through each phase of the novel from the beginning of the search to its culmination, women brought together from great distances and differences then left to put the tattered pieces of their lives back together. While Shay’s feelings are often on the surface, Colleen’s are more deeply buried, harder to assess or change. Hard truths dog their footsteps, the road after a painful and life-changing discovery even more challenging than their travails in North Dakota. Littlefield handles the escalating conflict with savage grace, insight and compassion, from Shay’s raw pain to Colleen’s more stubbornly entrenched realities, common ground never easily attained, the love of their sons the common thread that binds them.