Two little girls, each named after one of their mother’s favorite things, Easter (age 12) and Ruby (age 7) are orphaned. You get the sense that this is not a terribly shocking or sudden development as Mom had what we might call issues.
They do have a father, Wade, a would-be baseball player turned ex con turned day laborer, but he gave up his parental rights four years earlier. (We are never really told why, but it isn’t difficult to infer what triggered the move.) So the girls live in a Home for orphans, where they slide in the day-to-day life of children waiting to be adopted. There are grandparents out there – their mother’s are in Alaska – but the girls have never met any of them.
A few months after their mother’s death, Wade shows up. Despite having no legal grounds for doing so, Wade takes his girls, determined to be a father to them. Easter is suspicious and reluctant, but Ruby is thrilled to see her father. And Wade, perhaps even to his own surprise, is overjoyed to be with his girls.
There is a teensy little problem, though. Wade might just be in a bit of trouble with some Very Bad Men, men who are determined to wreak retribution from Wade.
When the girls go missing, another man is concerned: Brady Weller, their court appointed guardian ad litem. Brady’s motives may not be entirely altruistic – he is relegated to monthly dinners with his own daughter – but even so, he is determined to find the girls and keep them safe.
And so begins a search. Several searches, actually. Brady is looking for Easter and Ruby, Very Bad Man Pruitt is looking for Wade, Easter and Ruby are looking for someone to take care of them, and Wade …. well, Wade is looking for freedom and fatherhood. Bracketing the story is the chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to break Roger Maris’ home run record, a sort of metaphorical search for glory, success, and immortality.
This is a quick read, yet it is evenly paced. It feels slow and warm, much like the weather shrouding Easter and Ruby. Told through the eyes of Easter, Brady, and Pruitt, we see three very different perspectives on the missing girls. Easter is almost preternaturally mature, which, given her unstable childhood, is hardly surprising. When she looks at her home through the eyes of the responders coming after her mother’s death, she sees it for what it is, and nothing escapes her notice. No food, no furniture, no hope.
The good guy in the story, Brady lays bare his flaws, both personally and professionally. He knows that in rescuing the girls, he’s really trying to rescue himself as a father. He adores his daughter, yet has no connection with her. Perhaps in saving Easter and Ruby, he can save himself in her eyes.
Pruitt, the requisite bad guy, is less developed and almost comically predictable, the weak link in an otherwise compelling story. Everything about him is unoriginal, whether his reasons for hunting down Wade or some of the atrocities he commits. Fortunately, our time in Pruitt’s head is brief, perhaps because his story arc is so insubstantial.
Despite the disappointment that is Pruitt, this is a story that pulls you in and keeps you hooked, largely due to Easter. She is precocious in a Scout Finch sort of way, but the two characters share few similarities. Scout pushes and provokes, whereas Easter observes and adapts. She is the de facto mother – the de facto father, even – and has been for some time. What she wants from life, more than anything, is security. Can she find that with Wade? Or is she better off at the Home?
The beauty of Wiley Cash’s story is that he offers no pat, simplistic answers. Easter’s life may never be what she wants it to be, but whose is? Easter has learned the art of adaptation, of revising her expectations according to the situation at hand. Like the baseball players peppering the novel, she knows how to read the signs and make decisions that help her come out on top. Errors will occur, but Easter knows that making an error is one thing; not repeating them is another.