Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence is one heck of a debut novel. It grabbed me right off the bat and kept me from putting it down. Gudenkauf’s prose is neither overly embellished nor too stark. She develops a suspenseful, believable plot by using flashbacks and points of view to reveal the family dynamics and histories of several characters. This book goes on my shelf as a keeper…
The Weight of Silence takes place in rural Iowa over less than a 24-hour period and begins with two missing girls. Calli Clark is seven years old and has not spoken in the last four years. Hours before dawn on one hot August morning, her drunken father, Griff, pulls his barefoot daughter into the woods behind their house. It is a huge area that Calli knows very well through frequent excursions with her mother, Antonia/Toni, and brother, Ben, who is five years older. Calli’s neighbor and best friend, Petra Gregory, is also awake at that early hour because of the heat and thinks she sees Calli and Griff outside her window. She dons her shoes and goes out to say hello, barely missing them as they go into the woods. She follows.
Griff works in the Alaskan oil fields, and his family’s life is quiet and pleasant when he is gone for weeks at a time. A mean drunk, capable of abuse and great harm, he is also extremely jealous of Deputy Sheriff Louis, who used to be Antonia’s high school boyfriend. On this particular morning, Griff is supposed to go fishing with one of his beer buddies, but Calli being up so early and coming downstairs to go to the bathroom distracts him in a bad way. He gets riled up and tells his buddy to go on ahead, then he drags Calli off without a word or note to a sleeping Antonia.
Calli became a selective mute one fateful night when she was three and no amount of bribing, cajoling, bullying, or counselling has been able to restore her speech. Shortly after the Gregorys moved nearby, Petra becomes Calli’s voice and protector in school and everywhere else they go together. They seem to read each other’s minds and Petra always seems to know exactly what Calli means to say or want. However, Petra’s parents will not let her visit Calli when Griff is home.
Not long after the three of them disappear into the woods, Antonia and the Gregorys raise the alarm with Deputy Sheriff Louis that the girls are missing and presumed to be together. No one is aware that Griff did not go fishing, and he cannot be reached by phone.
Ben goes into the woods to search all of their favorite places for the girls, but comes out alone hours later. Panic begins to set in, when the state police will not allow a big search to proceed. Reporters have begun to gather, and the mother of a previously murdered young girl tries to help. Toni, Ben, and Petra’s father, Martin, are sure the girls are in the woods and have no patience left to wait for proper search procedures. As daylight begins to wane, Ben goes back into the woods to search deeper and in a different direction, while Antonia and Martin convince Louis to search with them, against state police orders.
The rest of the book is about finding the girls and the chilling discovery of an almost destroyed Petra by Calli and Griff, then by Ben, who presumes that his dad has done this awful thing. Calli races off for help, as Ben is being beaten by their father. Reaching her backyard, she utters her first word in four years. The climax and ending are extremely satisfying.