Something prompts Officer Jess Villareal to volunteer for a search mission the night she meets Ray and Lindy — something visceral, something she can’t quite explain. Knowing only that a young girl was spotted in the dense woods of Oregon, alone and running from passersby, the Columbia Police Force heads off to find her. And everyone knows they don’t leave the forest until they do.
And the story of Ray and his 13-year-old daughter Lindy is discovered — along with their clean, well-stocked camp in the woods, a place they have lived undetected for years. An Iraq War veteran, Ray lives a quiet life filled with Bible verses and patrolling the perimeter — all an attempt to keep his daughter safe. Unable to work and plagued by memories of his younger brother’s death in the war, Ray does the only thing he knows how: loves his daughter. Honestly, openly and steadfastly.
But is that enough?
Jennie Shortridge’s When She Flew alternates between Lindy’s first-person narrative accounts of life as one of the “forest people,” as the media dubs them, and the third-person look at Jess’s attempts to reconcile the love she feels for her distant daughter, Nina, with the way that love has been outwardly demonstrated to Nina. It’s a novel about family, really — how we’re tethered to them, but how we would return even if we weren’t. It’s a look at life for a war veteran who simply cannot cope with life after returning stateside — and how unable he is to get the care and resources he needs. And it’s Lindy’s story — a tale of a bright, articulate young woman who learns despite the prejudice she faces as one of America’s “homeless.”
Shortridge does a remarkable job of making Ray, a man who could be construed as mentally ill, into a sympathetic character — a man we feel for and with as he struggles to keep his daughter close, the only person left in his life he feels he can protect. We know that Ray’s actions, while unconventional and maybe dangerous, are only done with the best of intentions — to help Lindy. And just when I felt skeptical about him and what he was capable of, I was reminded again that he’s a good person. And a good dad. But that nagging, worrisome feeling in the pit of my stomach never completely went away.
Still, something about the novel’s slow pacing made me take my time with this one . . . perhaps the fact that by the halfway point in the novel, we were still in the same day we were when it started. Like Jess, overcome with exhaustion, I felt like we were never going to get out of that forest! Where was the daylight? And where was the impetus? Something kept me from turning the pages frantically. The characters were interesting, but the pacing dragged me down.
But overall, I would recommend When She Flew to fans of contemporary fiction who will appreciate a book told from the perspective of a policewoman — definitely a different sort of character. None of the characters in Shortridge’s novel felt like caricatures or stereotypes; they were unique, warm people. The novel introduces Big Themes — like inadequate assistance for our war vets — but doesn’t really expound on them. Does it need to? I’ll let you be the judge.
3.5 out of 5!