This was an audiobook that almost made it under the wire, but the more of this review I wrote the worse it seemed to me! Jeff Woodman's reading was very good, but the material lacked credibility or seemed like it was being artificially manipulated for the scare-effect. Consequently, the scares felt very much like they were tacked on...well, tackily, instead of being organically and intelligently incorporated into the story. The novel redeemed itself somewhat with the ending, but overall while initially thinking it's a worthy read for middle-graders, I found myself changing my mind, and I'll explain why.
The story begins three months after the young daughter, Molly, of this Wisconsin family has disappeared while they were picnicking in a park by a river. Everyone blames themselves for it, although the parents were shamefully lacking in attention. Chris, the thirteen-year-old son had gone off by himself, deliberately avoiding taking Molly with him, hence his guilt. Molly disappeared, of course, and the assumption by everyone is that she drowned, even though three months on, no body has been found.
This was my first beef: that a possible abduction had not once been considered. It felt completely unrealistic and makes the police look stupid. If it had been considered and dismissed for some reason, that would be one thing, but it never was, so for me, this was poor writing. This bad writing continues as the family therapist advises a trip to the same park where Molly went missing - for closure. The absurdism here comes from the abrupt turn-around in everyone's attitude: things miraculously - and unbelievably - change. They changed far too much, far too quickly, in fact, to have any credibility, and this is further highlighted by events that same evening.
As part of this therapy, they watch the video Chris shot that day (this was a 1993 novel, so no smart phones were to hand, nor was there any of today's digital technology typically available). Something bothers Chris about the video and keeps him awake. When he watches it again, he notices the arrival of the local ice cream van, but instead of sitting in the park with the music playing, selling ice cream, the van quickly goes quiet, stays only for a minute, and then leaves. This makes Chris suspicious, but for me, again, it was a a bit of a stretch. Maybe middle-graders won't care, but for me there should have been a bit more. just a bit.
Chris brings his suspicions to the attention of his parents, who summarily dismiss them all! This is the same family which, quite literally the day before, were dysfunctional to a painful degree, unable to come to terms with Molly being lost, yet now, they summarily dismiss what Chris says, and all but forbid him to talk about it.
Chris and his school friend Patrick decided to investigate further, back in the small village near the park where the ice cream folk, Buddy and his wife Clover, have a shop. They discover that the ice-cream vendors have left long before the season is over, with the excuse that Clover's mom is ill. Conveniently, there's an envelope in the mailbox, revealing where they went, so rather than take all of this to the police, Chris and Pat decide to fly down to Florida to pursue them, and see if they really have Molly.
Once they arrive in the Florida location, they have some poorly tacked-on encounters which stand out rather sore-thumb-like, such as the police officer showing an unnatural interest in them in a restaurant, and three young thugs trying to shake them down in the street. Maybe middle-graders won't be so picky about the tacky, but for me it did not work. The rescue was better, but even there the boys were shown as idiots rather than heroes.
They do rescue Molly of course - that much was a given -but instead of going to the nearest house and asking for help (it would be very easy to tell a story about a man chasing them - since it was true!), they keep running and almost get caught before they - finally - make it to the police station, where the story pretty much ends. There was an epilogue but I'm no more interested in reading those than I am prologues.
So while the reading was good and parts of the story were engaging, for me, overall, it was a fail. I'm more picky than middle-graders, so maybe they won;t care, but I think this was a wasted opportunity to educate middle-graders about how to behave - and survive - (given the unlikely premise that they fly to Florida in the first place), and I think the author blew a great opportunity for the sake of cheap and gaudy thrills. I can't recommend this one.