I love when an author lays all the pieces of the mystery puzzle in front of you and still manages to surprise you in the end. That was the thought that came to me upon completing A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw, my first nominee for Best Damn Book I’m Going to Read in 2022.
Travis Wren finds missing persons because he has kind of a super power: If he touches something associated with a person, he can sense the interaction between object and person and track that person. He’s out of practice, though, devastated because he found his own sister too late to prevent her death.
But he’s been coaxed out of “retirement” by the parents of Maggie St. James, the author of a series of dark children’s books, who disappeared about five years ago not long after a series of incidents where children were hurt, one fatally, imitating the characters from her books.
He has only one clue: Maggie’s mother catches him alone as he’s leaving and gets him to promise that if it turns out Maggie doesn’t want to be found, he won’t push the matter. And she tells him one word: Pastoral. His search leads him to an almost-legendary 1970s-era commune called Pastoral, and on the ground near the entrance to a long winding road into the woods, he finds an object that tells him Maggie was there.
Just after he reaches what appears to be the edge of Pastoral, the story makes an abrupt shift, and we’re two years in the future. We meet the simple folks who live off the land in Pastoral, and all is peace and love except Travis and Maggie have disappeared from the narrative. Or perhaps it’s not as simple, peaceful or loving as it all appears.
Ernshaw lays out all the pieces of the puzzle as the mystery unwinds, and as the commune residents piece it back together, she still manages to pull off some big surprises in the final act. This is one of those books that I’m sure will reward a second reading, but in the meantime I’m just basking in the glow of one mighty fine novel.