||Review of Unstolen
by Nancy Wigston
Unstolen by Wendy Jean (Macmillan, 320 pages, $29.95, cloth, ISBN: 0330447564). High-achieving Bethany Fisher, nineteen years old, single mother of Ryan, four, lands a job as a police artist. Her visiting mother glimpses her daughter's drawing of a pedophile, based on a child's description of the man who snatched her brother. On seeing the same man at the grocery store, Doris follows him home and bashes his brains out. The little boy is rescued but Doris cannot remember the murder and is locked away for psychiatric evaluation.
So begins a psychological thriller about a family with a "hole blown through it." Bethany's brother Michael was "stolen" from the Dartmouth Jamboree when she herself was an infant; at school she announces her identity as "the unstolen one." Her mother decides to homeschool Bethany, but not before she makes a friend whose family provides a lifeline to the larger world. Although smarter than most kids and protective of her mother's unending grief, Bethany becomes the second-best child. Believing her son will return, "Mama" observes his birthdays, includes him in every Christmas, driving away her husband and making room for Richard, the detective assigned to her son's case.
Perhaps because Bethany's story fuels the narrative, her clamped-down mother ("Oh geeeze! son of a biscuit!" she yells after slicing her finger in the kitchen) never seems fully present. Bethany escapes into a colourful world she invents, populated by penguins and their human pals, inspired by the beauty and safety of "Mansion Mountain" above her town. Her stories get published. Her mother's proudest moment is landing a spot on Oprah. When Bethany's buried resentment toward "Mama" surfaces, guided by a wise shrink, Doris's memory is triggered, and shattered lives are rebuilt. Despite a climax reminiscent of a golden age when psychiatry unlocked the doors to repressed emotions, this book about how families cope with loss makes a very engaging read.