Sara Peter's dad wasn't always like this; violent, angry and abusive. At one time, when they lived in Philadelphia, he was a cop, always smiling and good to his family. But a terrible incident changed all that. He was shot in the leg during an altercation with an Hispanic gang, which left him disabled, unable to work and his partner dead. Life for Sara's family spiraled downward ever after.
In an attempt to start over, Sara's father moves the family back to his hometown of Scottsfield, Michigan, where he now runs the family hardware store. Her father was not the happy man he was before and he became even more unhappy after her older brother, Matt, committed suicide four months ago. After Matt's death, the abuse and violence towards Sara's mom escalated to the point where her mother has finally decided to leave her dad even though he has warned her against leaving.
Sara and her mom make arrangements to pack and her mother tells her that she will pick Sara up the next day at Dairy Dreams. But when Sara's mom fails to meet her, Sara knows something has gone terribly wrong. When Sara returns home that night, her father tells her that her mother has been sent to a training convention in North Carolina.
Although Sara wants to believe her father and even pretends for awhile that what he is saying is true, she knows that something has happened to her mother. Calls to her mother's cell phone go to voice mail, and when Sara calls her mother's workplace she is told that her mother is on holidays for two weeks and that the company doesn't have an office in North Carolina. Sara, understandably unable to function much at school, begins skipping and now begins to actively attempt to find out what has happened to her mother. Has her father killed her mother? Did her mother just abandon her and leave Sara to live with her dad? Has she left to find a place for them to stay?
The story is told in the voice of Sara over a period of ten days, from Monday to the following week. Even though Sara knows her situation at home is not normal (her father still talks about Matt as if he's alive), she pretends it is. She also tries to pretend that things are normal at school, although it's very evident that she's under some kind of stress. Some of her teachers pick up on this, but Sara is expert at hiding what's going on, and no one digs deeper. Her friend Zach, knows something of her home situation. Zach is like a brother to her and Sara does tell him eventually that her mother is missing. She also meets and begins dating Alex Maloy, a member of the football team. Alex gives Sara's life some semblance of "normalacy" during this time of anxiety.
Meanwhile, Sara comes to the realization that she can no longer hide behind her silence, as she use to do when Matt and her mother lived at home. Her silence was her protection and her father took out his anger on Matt, and then when Matt was no longer around, her mother. That slowly begins to change as the days pass and her father begins to physically abuse her, becoming increasingly violent over the smallest things.
Sara can barely contain her panic as the week goes by and she does not hear from her mom. She begins searching the house for any clues to her mother's disappearance. When she finds the shovel is missing she begins to suspect the worst, but tries to reason away her fears.
"When I get back home, Dad is washing his truck. He's kneeling in the bed of the pickup, scrubbing something with a brush. I try not to think about the missing shovel.
Don't be ridiculous, Sara! If Dad were trying to cover up evidence that he'd had a dead body in the truck, he would have done that last Tuesday, the day that Mom disappeared.
The day that I didn't come home until well after dinner. The day I found my dad alone in the dark, smoking."
Eventually Sara finds the the name and number of a storage locker. When she and Zach make an important discovery, Zach wants to call the police but Sara decides to finally speak up and confront her father, leading ultimately to a deadly confrontation.
What She Left Behind seems like a crazy, strange novel. It is contrived to some degree. Sara can't go the police in Scottsfield, because the police officer, Jack Renolds, is a good friend of her father's. This leaves Sara pretty much on her own in terms of who can help her. Instead, she relies on her two friends, Zach and Alex, who both become drawn into the family's dire situation and in the final confrontation.
Many readers might have a hard time understanding why Sara would continue to live with her father. Her home situation is not only creepy, it's downright dangerous. But leaving an abuser is very difficult, as Bilen demonstrates in the novel. Sara is extremely conflicted about her father; she still loves him and remembers him as the father he use to be when she was younger. The flashbacks (written in italics) inform the reader what life was like before Sara's father was injured.
It takes time for Sara to absorb and face the reality of her situation. This is explained best in a flashback, where Sara remembers her father picking out her stuffed dog, a toy she still has. She loves this dog, even though he's well loved and worn.
"'I love him! Thank you so much, Mom!' She smiled and shook her head.The one aspect of the novel that felt somewhat unrealistic is Sara's blossoming romance with Alex, the unattainable "hot boy" at a time when her mother has gone missing. I feel that a young teen who suspects that her father has done something awful to her mother, wouldn't have the emotional capacity to be involved with someone else. Sara would be in considerable emotional turmoil especially given the fact that her father threatened her mother. At the same time, people who live in abusive relationships, whether it be physical/emotional abuse or alcoholism, are often experts at maintaining or presenting a facade of normalcy to the outside world. They are good at pretending, which may explain why Sara's teachers didn't pick up on the clues she was giving, writing them down to teenage irresponsibility.
'Don't thank me, thank your dad. He picked it out.'
Even at that age I knew that Mom did most of the shopping, so knowing Dad had chosen him made the stuffed dog extra special. ....
Lately when Dad did something that hurt one of us, I would think about that day and I would remember him the way he used to be. The way I believed he could be again someday.
Somewhere between last Tuesday and today, I stopped believing."
This short novel is a good read for those who love both mystery and suspense. The somewhat predictable but chilling ending is also satisfying.
What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen
New York: Simon Pulse 2012