To my deteriorating brain, durable historical novels must accomplish two, distinct thrusts: accurate, societal propulsion through the era(s) it is placed in, and, relevant, cultural commentary relating to modern times. It is always a mixture of the two, but my preference is emphasis on the latter. A Tale Of Two Cities or Gone With The Wind are examples of works steeped in the social mores of their times, yet they appeal to the universal—and contemporary—behavior of humanity.
The Missing is one of these.
Although set around New Orleans and the Mississippi River during the years after World War I, it feels more like a time 100 years after a modern apocalypse, where society has regressed to the technological capabilities and social mores of the early 1900's. That is because the novel is filled with a sense of things taken away and living in the sorrow that ensues.(1) There is no governing body as we know it today. The Law is more regulated by its citizens, for better or worse. The central microcosm of the novel, the sternwheel excursion boat Ambassador—“a used-up, dead and musty thing as still as a graveyard . . . [yet] someone's dream of a traveling good time”(Knopf, ISBN 9780307270153, c.2009, p.48, p.53)—is a playground for release, more often than not of the violent kind. It is certainly the dancefloor for the age-old prejudice so attached to Southern climes, as the innovative band of the boat is Black(2). Author Gautreaux coats this attitudinal cliché with unctuous irony while Caucasians—both rich and poor—experience the joy of companionship and connection through dancing to the musical freedom of "nasty", improvisational Jazz.
The question that persists throughout the novel is a deeply moral one: who is responsible, and, if it is you, to what depth should recompense be assumed?
Sam Simoneaux is a young man learning to fathom his own answers to that question. Only escaping annihilation as a baby because his father tossed him into a cold pot-bellied stove during a "sideways rain of lead"(p.311) from the revengefully-depraved Cloat clan while slaughtering his entire family. Consequestly, Sam is raised in this Uncle's household. Although certainly not an orphan in the Oliver Twist sense, he nonetheless missed that deeper, familial connection. After an opening salvo of historical scenes including a mournful WWI post-battlefield to set the tone, Sam's life is picked up as a floorwalker in a New Orleans department store, circa early 1920's.
The plot's firecracker is the abduction of a child on Sam's watch. He is summarily fired by his boss, admonished by the parents of the child, and most of his peers. Thus, under their "balm of blaming him"(p.299), he pledges himself to right this wrong. Since the child's family are all musicians working on a riverboat, Sam joins the crew postulating that Lily's kidnappers were in the audience on one of the many stops along the Mississippi. As it turns, she's sold to a prominent banker to ease his barren wife's neurotic obsession.
Accepting the blame instead of foisting it off on the parents' unwatchfulness adds a loft to the novel that makes Sam's journey truly heroic. Against the tide and facing almost certain defeat, Sam sacrifices everything and gains everything in return. Toward the end of the novel, Sam returns to his Uncle's farm and asks:
This opinion is later cemented in place when Sam faces the incestual disintegration of his life-long boogeymen, with their turpitude visually identified by Babe Cloat in “the rot of his garbage, a fecal putrescence”(p.349). Sam leaves what remains to their own, afflicted demise. As the book closes, Sam has taken an act so easily misdirected by indignant emotion and turned it righteous for his and is family—adopted and otherwise—into is own salvation.
Although this is a novel of conflicting upheavel, most of the action is investigative and behavioral. Nature's impromptu force of changing the pathways of rivers, of landscapes, becomes emblematic of these characters' lives. The serendipitous twists and turns unite its themes with alarming precision. Rich verses poor, acceptance battling prejudice, unconditional ethics against situational decisions, revenge opposing forgiveness—all these and many more(3) stand like totems throughout the read. And, although all directions are precarious, and safekeeping can burst as easily as a soap bubble, the testament is endurance over contamination, esteem over disregard, and honor over deceit.
As the Dude says, Life abides.