North Fork by Wayne M. Johnston
The premise of “North Fork” sounds all too familiar; it could be ripped from today’s headlines. A high school girl goes missing and a loner kid is the primary suspect. Families are broken, relationships are strained, trust is in short supply. But don’t let that scare you away from checking out this compelling debut young adult novel by Wayne M. Johnston.
A retired La Conner High School language arts teacher, Johnston draws from his years of experience in the classroom for this story. He nails the way teens talk, and does a pretty good job of describing the restrictions and frustrations that these incipient adults are grappling with.
The story revolves around three young people as narrators. Kristen is the good student who toes the line and is pretty and well-liked, but her mom and stepfather drive her crazy with their materialism and controlling ways.
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Kristen’s best friend, Natalie, is tougher – an outlier who at an early age was abandoned by her mom. She is living with an aunt who is cool but stretched thin.
And Corey is the boy whose biological dad is an alcoholic, and whose violence-prone stepdad makes his life a living hell.
Corey’s method of coping is to stay away as much as possible. He creates a hideaway out along the North Fork of the Skagit River, and when he and Kristen become unlikely friends, he shows it to her and unwittingly gives her the idea for running away.
Kristen comes across some information that suggests her mom has not been truthful about her identity. To forge her own authentic life, she decides to make her way to Canada, but she wants to throw people off track, so when she arrives in Victoria, she arranges with someone who is traveling to Hawaii to take a letter she’s written to her folks and mail it from there. That way they’ll know she’s alive, but if anybody is looking for her, they’ll be looking in the wrong place.
But the letter doesn’t get mailed.
Meantime, back in the Skagit Valley, Corey was the last person seen with Kristen, and law enforcement believes he is responsible for her disappearance. During the investigation of the case, which turns up some apparently incriminating evidence, he is locked up in juvenile detention.
Natalie, who had a bad run-in with Corey years earlier, is ready to believe the worst about him now.
In braiding these three narratives together, Johnston creates a page-turning tale. Those of us who are teens, or who remember what it was like to be a teen, or who live and work with teens, will recognize the authenticity of these lives.
One criticism: The author endows his young characters with perhaps more capacity for introspection involving the sophisticated interpretation of literary texts than most kids would actually muster. But hey, an English teacher is permitted to dream.
“North Fork” rewards its readers with hidden nuggets of wisdom concerning trust, resilience and – when warranted – forgiveness.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.