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Before She Was Found


Before She Was Found

Middle school can be a nightmare, as Cora Landry knows all too well. The shy and nervous 12-year-old doesn’t quite fit in with her peers in the small town of Pitch, Iowa. Desperately lonely since her one friend has moved away, she’s thrilled when she strikes up a friendship with the new girl in town, Violet Green. And having Violet by her side makes it slightly easier to deal with Jordyn Petit, the queen bee of the sixth grade who has taken a dislike to Cora.

Jordyn’s mean-girling is a big concern for the ultra-sensitive Cora, but schoolyard taunts, no matter how nasty, usually don’t lead to murder. So how did she end up nearly dead in an abandoned train yard outside of town? That mystery is at the center of BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND, the latest effort from Heather Gudenkauf, the author of LITTLE MERCIES and THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE. In this gripping thriller, she weaves a disturbing tale of schoolgirl rivalries and revenge, where small-town legend and anonymous online communication come together in a devastating act of violence.

"Gudenkauf, who works in education, has a keen sense of the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The picture she draws of life in the crucible of junior high is a dark one, but it doesn’t fail to fascinate."

Gudenkauf uses multiple perspectives to tell her story, always keeping the truth at arm’s length --- and keeping readers turning the page. Cora speaks in a devastatingly childish voice through her journal entries, revealing her secret anxieties and hopes. “[S]o now it’s holiday break and everyone hates me and I don’t have anyone to hang out with,” she laments after a class presentation goes badly wrong. These passages are all the more heartbreaking since we know what the future holds for her.

Other sections are told from the point of view of Violet’s mother, Beth, and Jordyn’s grandfather, Thomas. (Both girls were with Cora the night she was attacked.) There’s also Madeline Gideon, the psychiatrist at the hospital where Cora is being treated for her injuries, plus the logs of text messages, online chats and transcribed police interviews. The timeline swings back and forth between the present, as Cora recovers from her injuries and the police investigate the crime, and the past, as Gudenkauf outlines the events in the months leading up to the attempted murder.

The 2014 Slender Man stabbing is an obvious inspiration for Gudenkauf’s novel. That case involved two preteen girls who attacked a fellow classmate because they believed they were following instructions from a fictional online character. In BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND, it’s not the Slender Man that captures the girls’ imagination, but Joseph Wither, a man who allegedly killed several teen girls in Pitch decades ago and supposedly still haunts the town --- and perhaps an online forum --- looking for victims who will join him on the other side.

But this isn’t a simple ripped-from-the-headlines story. Gudenkauf complicates the narrative, tossing in red herrings and pointing readers to several possible killers before finally revealing the surprising truth in the book’s final pages. The true identity of Cora’s attacker comes as a gut punch, but it’s a twist that makes perfect sense given all that’s come before.

The story speeds along at a brisk pace --- many readers will want to finish the book in one sitting --- though at times Gudenkauf seems to be merely skimming the surface with some of her many characters. John Dover, the teacher who assigned the school project that triggered Cora’s obsession with Wither and who emerges as a possible suspect in her attack, is sketchily drawn. The same goes for Dr. Gideon, who is never present on the page long enough for readers to get a handle on why she gets so emotionally involved in this particular case.

But Gudenkauf, who works in education, has a keen sense of the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The picture she draws of life in the crucible of junior high is a dark one, but it doesn’t fail to fascinate.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on April 19, 2019

Before She Was Found
by Heather Gudenkauf