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Don’t miss ‘The Missing Season’

May 22, 2019
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There are some people who will simply never give young adult fiction its due. These people, for whatever reason (*coughcoughsnobberycough*) will dismiss out of hand any work that happens to bear that label. And that’s too bad, because they are missing out on some phenomenal work, all to satisfy some sort of literary holier-than-thou nonsense.

They’re missing out on the work of Gillian French.

The Maine-based author’s latest book is “The Missing Season” (HarperTeen, $17.99). It’s a well-crafted mystery that also delves into what it’s like to be young. It’s about being the new kid and having crushes and coming of age in the midst of a small town’s slow fade. It’s about what it means to be afraid, whether it’s of the boogeyman in the woods or the secrets of those closest to us.

And it’s very good.

The small Maine town of Pender has passed its prime. The once-thriving village began to fade in the aftermath of yet another mill shutdown. Jobs are tough to come by and most of the prospects for a better life involve leaving the place.

This is Clara’s new home. She’s landed here thanks to her father’s job – he’s a contractor specializing in mill demolition and he’s been hired to help take down Pender’s dormant mill. She’s used to being the new kid and rarely worries about peers – her faded-rainbow hair is proof enough of that. But she’s still a teenager, and so she seeks out friends.

She falls in with a crew of girls that live nearby. Bree and Sage are nice to Clara, taking her under their wing and introducing her around to the other kids who hang around at the town skate park. There are a number of young people in that particular orbit – Sage’s boyfriend Trace is the enthusiastic ringleader, the kind of wholesome-despite-himself “bad boy” that small towns often generate – but there’s one boy in particular that fascinates Clara.

Kincaid.

She doesn’t even know if that’s his first name or last name … and she doesn’t care. He’s got an air of mystery about him that she finds mesmerizing. Alas, she’s not the only one – Bree shares her infatuation with the quietly snarky senior.

It’s from Trace and Kincaid that Clara first learns about Pender’s tragic past – how kids have a tendency to simply disappear in the fall, sometimes turning up dead months later. The whispered explanation among the town’s youth is a legendary monster known as the Mumbler, a creature that roams the woods and snatches unsuspecting young people. It’s nothing more than local lore … or so it seems.

As Clara reckons with the dynamics of her new friends, a strained situation at home and her blossoming crush on Kincaid, she also finds herself trapped in a town’s tension; as autumn passes and Halloween approaches, Clara begins to wonder if perhaps there might be something to the legend of the Mumbler. She and her friends are left to wander through the shadows of the forest and wonder just how much they should fear whatever might be in those woods.

Now, “The Missing Season” is definitely a thriller. There’s a real mystery at work in these pages, one that warrants your attention. It is compelling and taut, with more than a few surprises thrown in. The air of the supernatural adds just the right amount of flavor to the proceedings. It’s precisely the sort of page-turner that you want a book like this to be, a book that you might wind up consuming in a single sitting simply because you don’t want to put it down.

But there’s more to it than just mystery. French excels at creating and conveying relationships – specifically, relationships between young people – in a way that engages while still feeling honest. The interpersonal dynamics she’s built in “The Missing Season” come off as genuine, which is harder than most people realize. You know that feeling when you’re reading dialogue from young people that has clearly been clumsily retrofitted from more “adult” conversation? Yeah, there’s none of that here – French’s teenagers sound like real teenagers, behave like real teenagers and generally ARE real teenagers.

French also channels the small-town vibe of Maine as well as anyone out there (and yes, I’m including the big guns). Pender is a fictional town, sure, but if you’ve lived in this state for any significant stretch of time, you’ve been to Pender. It wasn’t named Pender, but you’ve definitely been there – French evokes the particular, peculiar uniqueness of Maine’s towns masterfully.

“The Missing Season” is YA fiction at its finest, unafraid to be honest with its thoughts and themes while still offering up a compelling narrative. When fiction deserves to be read by readers of all ages, the qualifiers no longer matter quite so much … and this book fits that description perfectly.

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