Glen Hirshberg The Snowman's Children Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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The Snowman's Children

Glen Hirshberg

Carroll & Graf

US Trade Paperback Re-Print

ISBN 0-786-71253-8

Publication Date: 10-01-2003

324 Pages; $13.00

Date Reviewed: 10-24-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



General Fiction, Mystery

We all make mistakes, whether we'll admit it or not. Sometimes we can escape them, but sometimes they haunt us. The ghost that haunts Matt Rhodes in Glen Hirshberg's poignant first novel, 'The Snowman's Children' is not one of the victims of "the Snowman", a serial killer of children who strikes fear into the cold heart of Detroit in the winter of 1977. It is instead, his own mistake, his own childish decision that shadows not just his own life, but also that of his friends and family. Hirshberg's first novel is a wonderfully layered and constructed evocation of childhood and regret, of tension and terror, of growing up, but never, ever growing past your youth. Though you may escape harm at the hands of others, the damage you do to yourself is inescapable.

As the novel begins in 1994, Matt Rhodes is a successful architect who is designing his own failure as a husband. After nearly twenty years, he's left his wife behind in the cold as he seeks to return to the neighborhood where he grew up, to find his three best friends, if they're still alive, if they're still there. Barely able to connect with the woman he loves, he hopes that a connection to the people in his past will enable him to connect with the family of his future. Or maybe he just wants to wallow. The events of 1976 and 1977 still haunt Matt. Sure, there are the usual youthful memories to look back on. But there's something more, something darker at the heart of Matt's present unhappiness. Hirshberg's novel takes the reader to the crucible of Matt's soul. It's a powerful journey that's compelling reading and emotionally complex.

Hirshberg's construction of this novel is extremely clever but quite natural. He's created frames within frames, unfolding the narrative in parallel both in the past and in the present. The framework enables him to tell several stories simultaneously, and to build both the tension and the emotional complexity as he goes. The primary story takes place in 1976 and 1977, as Mattie Rhodes grows up in Detroit with his two best friends, Theresa Daughrety and Spencer Franklin. Theresa's father is a stern, widowed doctor who conducts 'Mind Wars' with his daughter and her friends, a sort of quiz-game that reaches intense levels of competition. Mattie always gives her a run for her money. Spencer is a black kid who joins Mattie in typical horseplay. In the background, the Snowman is kidnapping and killing the children of Detroit. The kids and parents are scared but they're informed. "Helping hand" decals on living room windows tell kids which houses they can run to if a man driving a blue AMC Gremlin pursues them.

Hirshberg's story is remarkably well written and intricately deployed. He's able to create the perfect level of tension and lace the story with authentic emotions. As the plot unfolds and keeps the pages turning at a rapid rate, Hirshberg weaves in a poignant tale of growing up, shot through with the kind of specifics that create a universal appeal. It doesn't matter if you've grown up in Detroit or Seattle or Covina or Tallahassee. Hirshberg has created a compellingly real childhood that all of us can experience. And as we hurtle towards the dark heart of Matt's childhood, the tension ratchets up relentlessly. It all looks so perfect. How did it all go so wrong?

Like the serial killer of its title, Hirshberg's novel sneaks up on the reader. The relationships between Matt and his wife in the present, and Matt and his friend of the past in the present are all colored by the relationships in his past. Those relationships are revealed slowly, against a background of rising fear in the neighborhood. And no relationship is ever simple, no relationship is a nicely closed, neat circle, like something you might find in fiction. Instead, they're messy, and young Matt finds himself involved in relationships that he doesn't understand. The reader understands, however, and the revelations the reader experiences are remarkably enjoyable.

Though the story of this novel involves a serial killer, the specifics are kept well in the background. Crime writing usually addresses the perpetrator or the victims. But those in the general vicinity of a serious crime are often changed. Hirshberg is one of the few writers to address this, and he does so spectacularly well. As a piece of crime fiction, 'The Snowman's Children' is a unique achievement.

Inevitably, the novel moves towards understanding, and towards the moments in which Matt changed his own life, and the lives of those around him. Hirshberg is a master at evoking understated power. He never, ever, tells the reader what's going on. Instead, the reader feels it happen as it happens to Matt. The moments within 'The Snowman's Children' are powerful moments, and the crime-story background is expertly used to ratchet up the stakes and the suspense. Readers will not be able to turn the pages fast enough, but they'll not want to turn them at all. Hirshberg's immersive experience has a powerful and lasting punch. In fact, having heard Hirshberg read before I finished the novel enabled me to hear his voice in my mind as I finished reading the novel. Hirshberg speaks to the reader with a clarity that's striking. Complex, beautiful and compelling, 'The Snowman's Children' offers the reader the unusual experience of understanding a mistake without having to actually make one.