A novel that came out out of nowhere and burst to the top of the best-seller lists has a plot line that sounds eerily familiar in what seems to be the summer of missing girls.
The Lovely Bones, a debut novel by Alice Sebold, which is Good Morning America's "Read This!" book club selection this month, has hit No. 1 on both The New York Times best-seller list and Amazon.com. In the novel, teenager Susie Salmon narrates the story from heaven after she is raped and murdered on her way home from school.
While adjusting to a new home, in her own personal heaven, Susie watches her family members deal with the feelings of despair that have invaded their everyday lives since her death.
The girl's tale seems all the more gripping in light of a recent slew of highly publicized crimes committed against children, including 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who Salt Lake City authorities say was kidnapped from her bedroom by an armed man, and 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, who was sexually assaulted and killed after being abducted in California.
In Oregon City, the bodies of missing teens Miranda Gaddis, 13, and Ashley Pond, 12, were buried in the yard of a neighbor who is expected to be indicted in connection with their deaths. After Gaddis' body was discovered, one of her girlfriends spoke of the afterlife.
"I wanted to believe so badly that she was gonna be alive," the friend said. "I know she's in heaven now."
A Vision of Heaven
In The Lovely Bones, Sebold describes the heaven of her teenage narrator, Susie.
"We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams," she writes. "There were no teachers in the school. We never had to go inside except for art class. The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue."
She did not have a "light bulb moment" of inspiration that made her decide to write the book from the perspective of someone in heaven, Sebold said. She had been working on another book that fell flat, and switched off to write some poetry, as is her custom when she hopes to fuel her prose.
After writing the poetry, she came back and wrote a draft of the first chapter of The Lovely Bones in one fell swoop. Sebold said she felt very connected to the idea of the character, Susie, and what she represents, though the young girl's vision of heaven is not the same as hers.
"This really is Susie's version of heaven," Sebold said. She played with the idea of several different fictional heavens as she wrote the book, but the author says she doesn't personally spend a lot of time thinking about heaven herself.
A Sad Connection
The book's release coincides with a series of violent crimes against young girls, which have received heavy media coverage. Though the cases have been very sad, the public has seemed to be prepared to hear about the horrible stories, and what the families face.
"We're able to hear the stories now, when before, maybe there wasn't an appetite for them," Sebold said.
She would not presume to recommend The Lovely Bones to families of such tragedies, but some people who have lost children through murder have come to her readings, and sent her e-mails about her book, Sebold said.
"They say the book has been healing for them," she said.
The author has faced some healing issues of her own. Three years ago, she published her first book, a memoir called Lucky, about her experience of being raped when she was a college freshman.
Here is what she wrote:
"In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said I was lucky."
If she wasn't consciously thinking of her own experience of rape when she sat down to write The Lovely Bones, at least she was unconsciously doing so. When she showed some early chapters to her husband, novelist Glen David Gold (who was her boyfriend at the time) and a girlfriend, they both made the connection before she did.
At the end of The Lovely Bones, Susie graduates from a "small heaven" to a larger one.
"Now I am in the place I call this wide, wide Heaven because it includes all my simplest desires but also the most humble and grand. The word my grandfather uses is comfort," she writes.
"So there are cakes and pillows and colors galore, but underneath this more obvious patchwork quilt are places like a quiet room where you can go and hold someone's hand and not have to say anything. Give no story. Make no claim. Where you can live at the edge of your skin for as long as you wish."