I just closed Descent and can still feel those symptoms of adrenaline: heart racing, shallow breathing, butterflies in my stomach, eyes and ears hyperalert, muscles twitching and ready for fight or flight. Of course, it could be the two pieces of birthday cake I had for dinner, but I’m convinced it’s Tim Johnston’s storytelling.
The best part is that Johnston manages to pull off two good books at the same time – an intense psychological thriller and an emotionally resonant story about the family that’s left behind when one of its members goes missing.
Caitlin Courtland is a tough competitor, a runner who demands everything of herself; her younger brother Sean is pudgy and shy, overlooked by his peers and her friends. Their parents have lived through personal trauma, undergone difficulties in their marriage, and are returning to a sense of normalcy. The family is on that last golden trip before Caitlin goes to college on a track scholarship. Then Caitlin, trailed by Sean on a bike, goes for a run; the next thing any of them know, Sean is in the hospital, leg shattered and in shock, and Caitlin is gone.
Over the course of the next two years, the Courtland family breaks apart. Sean leaves home in his dad’s truck, traveling the road, taking menial jobs for gas money, and encountering the dark underside of the American character. Angela, the mother, goes back to their home in Wisconsin but is devastated by the loss of her child and the ongoing uncertainty of her fate. Grant, the father, stays on in the little town near Caitlin’s kidnapping in some vain hope that she’ll know he’s close by. He also begins forming tentative relationships–and definite enmities–with people in the community.
We learn in small pieces what became of Caitlin, and what it cost her to save Sean’s life. We also come to admire just how tough she is, and what she could have become had a strange man not come hurtling into her life. But hers is not a happy story, and as the book approaches its ending we see just what kind of person she is.
Johnston uses the story to address not only family issues (and of families other than the Courtlands), but also of the blend of good and bad that exists in (nearly) everyone. That same kind of blending propels Descent to a powerful and emotionally affecting end.
Check the WRL catalog for Descent