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The God of the Woods


The God of the Woods

As I was nearing the end of THE GOD OF THE WOODS, Liz Moore's latest literary mystery, I almost made the mistake of recommending it to a friend of mine. Why would this have been a mistake, you ask? It’s not because the book didn't live up to expectations. In this case, my friend's child was on the verge of leaving for sleep-away camp for the first time, and I knew that Moore's novel might be better recommended at the end of the summer, once her child is back home safe and sound.

You see, Moore's narrative opens on a nightmarish scene. "The bed is empty" is the first sentence of the book. The year is 1975, and the setting is Balsam cabin, one of the girls' cabins at Camp Emerson, a sleep-away camp in the Adirondack woods. The missing girl is 13-year-old Barbara Van Laar, a first-time camper with an unusual relationship to the camp. Her family has lived on the adjoining estate for generations. Their groundskeeper, Vic Hewitt, and now his daughter, TJ, oversee the camp activities each summer.

"Unless you happen to have a child away at summer camp, THE GOD OF THE WOODS is an ideal summer novel. It’s thought-provoking and chilling, a page-turner with both substance and style."

Despite the proximity of Camp Emerson to the Van Laar estate (whose main house is the ironically named "Self-Reliance," an honest-to-god European chalet that was trucked into the woods in pieces and reassembled by dozens of local laborers), the old-money family keeps a figurative distance from the place. Until Barbara, whose relationship to her family is complicated (to put it mildly), requests to spend the summer there.

But now Barbara has disappeared, seemingly without a trace. Both her counselor, Louise, and counselor in training, Annabel, have something to hide --- neither one was entirely on duty the night before. Barbara's bunkmate and closest camp friend, Tracy, is determined to do her own investigation based on secrets Barbara has confided in her. But she ends up going missing as well. And then there's "Slitter," the star of campfire horror stories, but based on a real-life serial killer who recently has escaped from prison and might be roaming these same hills.

It's soon revealed that Barbara's disappearance carries uncomfortable echoes of another unsolved disappearance 14 years earlier. Peter "Bear" Van Laar, who was eight years old at the time, vanished during the family's annual summer party. His body was never found, and a local man was under suspicion for the crime but died while in custody. Barbara, born a year after Bear's disappearance, has always felt like an imperfect replacement for her seemingly perfect absent brother. Her parents are, to put it mildly, disinterested in her --- so a summer away at camp, even if it's just right down the hill, sounds like an ideal escape.

Liz Moore's novel is exquisitely plotted, divided into seven substantial sections and a number of chronologies, weaving together the events before and after Bear's disappearance, the lead-up to Barbara's departure from Balsam, and the investigation that follows. This is led by Judyta Luptack, one of the first female police investigators in the country, and one of the first to propose that there might be connections between Bear's mystery and Barbara's.

Throughout, Moore --- in addition to crafting a riveting story --- comments explicitly or implicitly on the economic and class impacts of a family like the Van Laars establishing a compound like Self-Reliance in the midst of an otherwise working-class area. Locals are simultaneously beholden to the Van Laars and resentful of them. Their labor is both essential and invisible, and they are taken for granted and underestimated, much like Barbara herself.

Unless you happen to have a child away at summer camp, THE GOD OF THE WOODS is an ideal summer novel. It’s thought-provoking and chilling, a page-turner with both substance and style.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 12, 2024

The God of the Woods
by Liz Moore