Title: Half Moon Lake
Author: Kirsten Alexander
Published: January 2nd 2019
Publisher: Bantam – Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 stars
‘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.
‘Sonny wasn’t in the garden. He wasn’t in the thickets or on the rope swing or in the shed. And though John Henry and Ira scoured the forest and the lake’s edge with Mason, they didn’t find the boy.’
So begins the fateful story of four-year-old Sonny Davenport, who walks into the woods one muggy summer’s day and vanishes without a trace. Inspired by the real life kidnapping story of American boy Bobby Dunbar, Half Moon Lake is a compelling historical mystery novel that seduced me from cover to cover.
Half Moon Lake begins in the year 1913, in America’s Deep South. The Davenport family are based at their summer abode, a lake house. Little Sonny, the family’s four-year-old child disappears, last seen in the surrounding forest. The small community of Opelousas in Louisiana is hit hard by Sonny’s disappearance. The Davenports use their money and influence to track down their son, for they are certain he is still alive. Over a period of two painful years, the Davenports, in particular John Henry, Sonny’s father, tracks down every single possible lead. While Mary, Sonny’s mother, cannot cope at all and goes into utter despair. Even a healthy reward does not turn anything up. Things take a very different turn when the Davenports are faced with the impossible. A boy resembling their lost child Sonny surfaces, with a vagrant. Sonny’s reappearance signals the beginning of a complex case. A trial, a dubious tramp, an unwed mother with claims to the boy resembling Sonny and a community up in arms about this strange case defines Half Moon Lake.
The author of Half Moon Lake, Melbourne based writer Kirsten Alexander, is currently in the throes of her third novel. However, Half Moon Lake, her debut, has only just been released. This is a book that completely absorbed me from the fascinating Author’s Note, contained at the start of the book, until the very end.
On first appearance it can seem like Half Moon Lake is a cut and dry historical based kidnapping story. I need to make it clear that Half Moon Lake is so much more than this. Yes it is the tale of a boy’s disappearance and the ripple effect this has on the family, small community and others, but it also offers an excellent commentary on a number of key issues. The overwhelming message I got from this novel was that wealth and status can influence the justice system, especially in times past. Alexander also uses Half Moon Lake as a vehicle to adequately explore social inequality, the vagrant experience, the treatment of slaves, gender oppression, wealth and class issues. The social graces and morals present at this point in time are carefully embedded with the novel. In addition, there is a solid overlay of the political background at the time, as well the world climate, which was only just feeling the shocks of the outbreak of World War I. This is beautifully captured by Alexander.
Half Moon Lake is defined a moody cover and a stirring atmosphere, which is established very early on in the novel. There is even a Spotify playlist to help immerse the reader in the music of the time and place. I appreciated these touches very much and my emotions were definitely heightened from the get-go. As a mother of two young children, my heart went out to the Davenports, especially Sonny’s mother, Mary and later Grace Mill, the other mother with a lost child. Alexander does a very fine job of expressing the feelings that we would expect these parents to experience. Alexander offers an excellent snapshot into the grief, loss, longing, desperation, confusion and the brief glimmers of hope. Tied into this was the endless trips John Henry embarked on to chase the wild leads on Sonny. It was relentless and I felt terribly exhausted by it all for the Davenports!
Half Moon Lake takes a different direction when the boy resembling Sonny surfaces with the vagrant. Alexander’s focus on the fallout from this and the complexity associated with the other woman claiming to be the boy’s mother is carefully considered. Alexander is deliberate in her approach, ensuring that the unfolding tale is told with conviction, not sentiment and she avoids taking the moral high ground. This is a tough one morals wise and the definition of right and wrong comes into play, big time. It is hard to discuss this further without ruining the ending of the book!
Half Moon Lake is an excellent period piece. It is a well rendered historical mystery novel that successfully fuses fact with fiction. With strong accompanying themes of family, wealth, privilege, justice and kinship, Half Moon Lake left quite the impression on this reader.
Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander was published on January 2nd 2019 by Bantam – Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Half Moon Lake, Kirsten Alexander, visit here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Half Moon Lake is book #2 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge