The Girl in the Red Coat
by Kate Hamer
Newly single mom Beth has one constant, gnawing worry: that her dreamy eight-year-old daughter, Carmel, who has a tendency to wander off, will one day go missing.
And then one day, it happens: On a Saturday morning thick with fog, Beth takes Carmel to a local outdoor festival, they get separated in the crowd, and Carmel is gone.
Shattered, Beth sets herself on the grim and lonely mission to find her daughter, keeping on relentlessly even as the authorities tell her that Carmel may be gone for good.
Carmel, meanwhile, is on a strange and harrowing journey of her own—to a totally unexpected place that requires her to live by her wits, while trying desperately to keep in her head, at all times, a vision of her mother …
When I started this book I wondered if it would feel different from other books I’ve read about missing children. I hung in longer than I usually do to see if something would develop and it did – Carmel’s experience while kidnapped.
Carmel is a precocious child and, while at a book fair with her mother, openly talks about how she doesn’t know her grandparents. The man who takes her overhears and uses this information for his cover story. He is her grandfather and will take care of her since her mother was hit by a car.
None of this is what made me keep reading. It was after Carmel wakes up in America with her ‘grandfather’, his girlfriend and her two daughters. He is a traveling preacher and they live out of a shoddy caravan with little money. This felt like something out of time, especially once he has her use her healing hands at a church. I kept imagining an American West from over a hundred years ago, not modern day America with cars and cell phones.
It didn’t feel impossible that a preacher selected a girl who looked like a girl he used to use in services who has since mysteriously gone away. It didn’t feel impossible that she believed his statements about being her grandfather, her mother’s accident and death, her father wanting her to stay with her grandfather since he’s gotten remarried. These are all reasonable explanations, particularly to a child with little agency.
There was a supernatural element (or spiritual, depending on your point of view) in the book that wasn’t fully explored. Carmel sees and feels things when she heals people, sometimes. There may be a case that’s real. Beth learns that her own grandmother was into spiritualism and healing and other flighty things. I think I was invested in finding out if the healing is true because we’re following Carmel through this ordeal. It’s not like the narrator is a distant third person or it’s the grandfather’s story and he believes.
I appreciated the time jumps in Beth’s sections, labeled with the amount of time since Carmel went missing. This literary device helped ground Carmel’s sections that had no labels so we can follow her aging through her mother’s journey. It was a solid choice for the structure of the book.