“After Wendy White’s body was found, I saw the world as it was for the very first time.”A teenaged girl’s words are prophetic, the realization of innocence lost and cynicism birthed. In this ambitious novel, the juxtaposition between reality and façade is a chilling reminder of how America has fallen victim to its own mythology. In the Rust Belt of western New York State, newcomers imagine communing with the land and a focus on the more important values of modern life. The truth is that farming is no longer pastoral but big business with international investments. The local dairy in Haeden, New York, actually employs fewer people than the big box stores in a part of the state geographically near the poverty of Appalachia. Yet the myth of American values remains, insiders who make their living from farming resisting an influx of “outsiders.”
Hoffman breaks this fragile shell to expose Haeden’s residents and the public and private violence that lurks behind the myth through three characters: Wendy White, the local girl who disappears one day; Stacy Flynn, a reporter determined to write about the pollution of the heartland by agribusiness who becomes intimately involved in solving Wendy’s disappearance; and Alice Piper, the gifted child of New York physicians recently moved to Haeden in an effort to tap into a simplicity that seems but a dream in the city.
A local girl content to live within the boundaries of job and family, Wendy’s unknown fate triggers Flynn’s nascent rage against the pollution of agribusiness and a general lack of interest in the shocking numbers of women who suffer society’s random violence. While Stacy is relentless in her quest to locate the girl she believes is still alive and nearby, Alice Piper’s genius thrives in the rich environment her parents have created for their only child, free-thinking New York intellectuals with somewhat modified expectations seeking to assimilate in a town where generations are reluctant to accept their ilk. The author maintains a perfect balance between Wendy, recently seen with the town’s largest dairy farm’s scion, Dale Hayte, Stacy’s singular efforts as the paper’s only reporter and Alice Piper’s extraordinary awakening from childhood to adolescence. While Alice ultimately holds the key to Hoffman’s surprising plot, the story unfolds with a tension that promises an unexpected denouement.
It’s a delicate juggling act, precise character development with the social context of an America found more in façade than reality. Then there is the sweet temptation of beauty in a violent landscape, where Wendy wraps herself in the familiarity of place like a comfortable coat and a precocious Alice swings wildly on a trapeze in the family barn, inhaling books and learning to shoot rabbits with a practiced eye. The Pipers reminisce about their early aspirations to join Doctors without Borders; the massive Hayte dairy has gone international, most of the cows bred to milk; and swaggering teenage boys brag about their sexual exploits, secure in their pride of place. Hoffman takes all these things, adding moments of sweetness and affection and the inherent violence of wealth versus poverty in a provocative tale that is stunning, ambitious and unforgettable.