HH Com Rd 2 -#3 (40)

Tiny Chocolate Crosses (hook here)

One town over, they’re digging up the wrong daughter with a backhoe. I know this because I am home unexpectedly with a sick child and we are watching the local noontime news, sipping ginger ale. I hear the reporter say that most days this public works crew just fills potholes, clears storm drains, or weeds the flowerbed in front of city hall. I expect him to recount a kitten rescue or a black bear sighting in the business district. This is news in northern Michigan.

Instead, he uses a word I’ve never heard spoken in conjunction with kittens or native wildlife: “exhume.” Under the stoic eyes of local cops and the Michigan State Police, they were exhuming the body of a downstate girl, Laura VanRyn; college student, devout Christian, volleyball player, sister, and yes, daughter.

For five weeks the body of Laura VanRyn lay in a casket that was not her casket, buried in a hometown cemetery that was not in her hometown, deep in a plot marked with a headstone that did not bear her name. The 1,400 mourners who attended her closed-casket funeral weeks earlier had not cried for her. She did not appear in the video that was shown to celebrate her life; she was not the smiling blonde in the footage of a family enjoying Easter dinner together. The fresh flowers laid upon her grave were not among her favorites, and neither were the bible verses read aloud as she was lowered into the ground.

I turn the television off. My son is nine and for as long as possible I want him to go on thinking that having an ear infection on a sunny spring day is the very worst thing possible. But I find that I cannot pull my mind away from their story, neither right then nor for many months afterward.

That night, after all three of my sons have gone to bed, I turn the television back on. The newsman looks grim. More grim than usual, I think. He says that on April 26, 2006, five college students were killed in a highway accident when a semi-truck plowed into the van they were riding in. The driver fell asleep at the wheel of his 80,000-pound rig. The crash scene was a mess of torn metal, personal belongings, and bodies. Purses and backpacks were thrown awry.

One survivor was airlifted to an area trauma center. She had brain damage, broken bones, cuts over her face, and was in a coma. She would live. Her name was Whitney Cerak. The name on her medical chart, the name that was used to admit her to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne, the name on the driver’s license and student ID card placed on the gurney with her, the name spoken aloud by onlookers, was Laura Van Ryn. Another girl would be pronounced dead at the scene and her body would be taken to a make-shift morgue. The name the coroner wrote on her death certificate, the name hospital staff used to identify her body, the name listed among the dead was Whitney Cerak. Her real name was Laura VanRyn

I think about my youngest son sleeping upstairs under his comforter with rockets and planets on it and how glad I am that he has an ear infection. Just an ear infection. I think about my two older sons, lanky big-eared teenagers with plans for college someday. College. Where they will study for tests, memorize poems and history dates, and maybe even occasionally miss their mother. College, where they will be free to get into cars with people I will never meet, and hurtle down the highway at ungodly speeds to this event or that. Where they will slide by untold numbers of sleepy men driving semi-trucks.

The CNN ticker rolls by on the bottom of the screen like a robotic soothsayer. “What a heartbreaking tragedy. Hard to believe this thing could happen,” anchor Wolf Blitzer says. He in his flak jacket and me on my couch have witnessed young soldiers blown up in the desert, whole villages washed away in a tsunami, airplanes crashing into history, dying babies on rooftops in New Orleans, and yet we are moved by this story of two families from insignificant mid-western towns, living out their good and anonymous lives. Whose daughters are these? Whose daughters were they in those five weeks when they carried each other’s names? Whose daughter, I wonder, am I?

This is really good writing. It's also a memoir about adoption ie a tough market because there's been a lot on that subject so the bar for fresh and new is really high.

I'd invest in 50 pages of reading to get a sense of this but I'd want a syopsis that showed me what was going to make this stand out from the crowd.

I'd want to make sure these two stories are integrated throughout the book as well, that it's not just up front to catch my interest like a big sign that says FREE and small lettering that says (after $100 purchase).


Knightsjest said...

I think the opening of this story and the opening of the hook are possibly misleading to a reader. It's a good idea to make sure your reader knows what they are getting up front because if it is not what they want they will turn off pretty quick.

Bernita said...

Please...do something about "watching the local noontime news, sipping ginger ale."

Anonymous said...

This isn't my kind of story, so it didn't particularily appeal to me. I did think it was well written. The present tense was annoying though. I'm not sure I would ever want to read an entire book of present tense.


Anonymous said...

Not sure what it is that Bernita disliked about the sentence. It reminded me of when I was given ginger ale for upset stomach when I was a kid.

I liked all of this. Though I do agree with Soaraway, that the reader is looking for a story about the mixup with the girls, and may get disappointed if the book uses them merely as a metaphor or setup.

Maybe that impression is so strong for me because I remember the hook being about the girls too. It was only because Miss Snark said so here that I then remembered it's actually a memoir about adoption. So, I guess my point is, I've read the hook and the first pages and think it's a book about the mixed-up car accident girls. If it's not, the hook should have been what it *is* about.

Zany Mom said...

I didn't realize this was memoir until Miss Snark said; this reads like it could be a good novel.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the writing is beeautiful.

LindaBudz said...

Love the writing and the story ... I agree, if the news piece doesn't continue to play a role in the book, I'd feel cheated.

I felt it would have been a stronger opening page if para 4 were deleted. That didn't fit with the flow for me and also (unless I'm missing something) took it out of present tense for a moment, which confused me.

ObiDonWan said...

Ditto, Miss Snark, and ditto commenters.
I like the reading enough that I might put up with an insufficient plot.

Anonymous said...

Just want to say....I'm an editor at a lit mag and generally just skim these crapometer things because most of the writing, even the kind that's branded "sale-able," bores me.

This entry made me stop and read. The writing is good. Good luck to you, whoever you are.

McKoala said...

I really like the writing here, but I have to agree with the others by questioning the use of this as a hook - if it is just a hook. It's a horrifying and fascinating story. If you are only using this story at the start, then will your own story grip me in a similar way?

Anonymous said...

This made me cry.

It's a memoir and it seems to be told as a memoir so far.

(I didn't think it had anything to do with adoption. Did I miss something? I thought it was spiritual journey memoir in part in reaction to this "ordinary-yet-tragic" news story.)

I'd keep reading.

But I do agree wtih others that, right now, the story about the mix-up and the dead-girl/living girl are more interesting than the story of the narrator. And some readers might feel cheated when the story turns out to be about the less-interesting narrator-mother.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Bernita is irritated because it reads like mother and child are watching the news as it sips ginger ale. I'd watch that too, but that's not the story.

Anonymous said...

If this had been a book about the mixup I would buy it in a heartbeat, especially with this opening.

MWT said...

It's very well-written. Everything flows smoothly along, and there were no points where my interest wandered. Present tense didn't bother me, but I read a lot of other things in present tense so I may not be the best person to ask about that.

I did stop reading in two places. Not because my attention wandered out of boredom, but because suspension of disbelief got disengaged.

1. "My son is nine and for as long as possible I want him to go on thinking that having an ear infection on a sunny spring day is the very worst thing possible."

This isn't really a writing nitpick, but I would hope that by the time a kid is nine years old, they've had at least a little exposure to what the real world is actually like. I have a problem with overprotecting children to the point that they don't actually know how to function. Don't hide them away from Bad Things. Show them how to cope.

2. "College. Where they will study for tests, memorize poems and history dates, and maybe even occasionally miss their mother."

The "memorize poems and history dates" line makes me think that the author has no idea what college is actually like. It brought me to a screeching halt of "huh? did you never get past high school?" But then "maybe even miss their mother" roped me back in, and I read on.

Angus Weeks said...

The voice is excellent. The writing flows. I would have the same concerns as Miss Snark, but obviously they might be immaterial as you may already have addressed these things yourself (or maybe your story is so fantastic we won't care that we leave behind the mixed-up identities of the girls).

I disagree entirely with MWT's two points. My favourite sentence was the line MWT didn't like, where the narrator thinks:

"My son is nine and for as long as possible I want him to go on thinking that having an ear infection on a sunny spring day is the very worst thing possible."

To me, that didn't say anything about the son's experience of life so much as the parent's idealisation of childhood and thus revealed character.

MWT also thought the below didn't ring true:
"College. Where they will study for tests, memorize poems and history dates, and maybe even occasionally miss their mother."

I don't see the problem that MWT has with this. I know many people who did higher education and worked their butts off to get good grades: I wasn't one, but my sister most certainly was, as was my best friend. In any case, I suspect the narrator is again idealising, and I find that makes me interested in the character - why does this narrator idealise things so much? I am interested to read on.

MWT's opinion is just as valid as mine, obviously. I just wanted to provide a counter opinion.

~Rebecca Anne~ said...

I enjoyed this and would continue to read.
I have to agree with several of the commenters. Be careful about using the actual mix up news story, it could lead to misunderstandings by the reader.
Well done!

Anonymous said...

I agree with some other commenters that while this is well-written, the hook is still the mixed-up-girls story, which would certainly be fascinating material for a non-fiction book. But even as a fellow adoptee, I'm still having trouble understanding why this unrelated event makes the author's life interesting.

Fuchsia Groan said...

Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought what MWT meant is that college students, while they may (one hopes) do some studying, don't do much memorization of dates and poems anymore. That's more likely to be high school stuff. (I actually did assign my students in a college English course to memorize poems, and let me tell you, they were horrified. Even reading poems is uncommon these days.)

Great writing, though I also lost some interest when she talked about sheltering her son... reminds me of friends who won't even let their kid watch the death scenes in Disney movies. I can understand their motivation but not relate. If this were a novel, then the author might intend us to see the narrator as naive, but since it's a memoir, I tend to assume this voice and perspective will be consistent throughout. I could be wrong, of course...

MWT said...

Fuschia Groan has it right. My own college experience (which involved ludicrous amounts of academic overachievement, by the way) was completely not about memorizing poems and history dates. By college you've (hopefully) moved past that to do much more interesting things with knowledge than just memorize it.

Also, I understand that the narrator was idealizing the innocence of childhood. Revealed character, yes, and it would work okay if this was a fictional character. But as Fuschia Groan said, if this is a memoir, it makes me like the author less.

Either way, neither of those two points detracted far enough that I would stop reading entirely.

Anonymous said...

I find this very confusing and because the hook was exactly like these first pages, I am still very confused. Is this story about the mix up with the girls or is this a life story about this woman's adoption? The first I'd read, the second I couldn't care less about (no offense - I meant in the context of putting my hard earned money down to buy it in book form).

Does this book provide insight into what happens with the girls lives that got mixed up? Will we learn about their families and what they went through, how they felt when they realized the news, how the surviving girl feels about what happened, etc? Because if that is not in there, I would be angry about being deceived.

Stephen Prosapio said...

I agree with much of what has been written already. The writing is very close and very personal. I would have a hard time with the 1st person present voice for an entire novel, though...and I don't think, based on the writer's skill with words and creating intimacy, that it's necessary.

As for the "Bait and Switch" issue...I could see the stories intertwining throughout the book, mirroring and/or contrasting each other.

Good work author!

Anonymous said...

Hi all,
I'm the author. Thanks for your helpful comments; they mostly zeroed in on exactly what I'm challenged with/trying to accomplish. Except for the nit-pickers. I mean, whatever. It's a WORK IN PROGRESS, ok? The book attempts to blend my story with the girls'. And yes, I do explore their lives and their families' lives. Anyone heard of any books you liked that did this well? I'd love to read them.

Anonymous said...

I realize you're setting the scene for a memoir, but the hook primarily summarizes the abundant reporting for the past 7 months in Michigan and Indiana. (Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn can be found found via Google.) Although I see a greater connection between these reports and a parent looking for a lost child, I might be interested in seeing the connection to a child looking for biological parents. Spend more time on You than the news, after all it is a memoir.

Anonymous said...


I didn't comment, but you should be nicer about the "nitpickers". For one thing, many people who entered the COM did so with a completed novel, not a work in progress, so maybe people think you're sending it to agents like this.

For another, it's easy to write stuff off as typos or early draft problems, but learning what your weaknesses are is more valuable. As I say, you didn't ignore anything by me, but when I make "nitpicky" comments, I do so from 10 years as a professional editor and to be helpful (because most agents won't consider work with too many mistakes), not to be a grammar nazi or anything.