Review published on September 13, 2018.
Philadelphia, 1931, the city is still reeling from the financial fallout after the 1929 Great Depression and newspapers still have stories to sell.
Photographer and erstwhile feature writer Ellis Reed is stuck doing stories for the ‘women only pages’ so is on his way back from a quilt competition when his car overheats in a small town. Sitting opposite are two scruffy boys throwing stones from their porch step. But what catches Ellis’s eye is a small wooden sign beside them ‘2 children for sale’.
His natural curiosity means he wants to take a photograph (for which he pays the lads) but as he drives away he is troubled by the stark reality of a situation for such a family that can only get cash by selling their own children.
Back at the Philadelphia Enquirer where he works, Lily Palmer is the Chief Editor’s secretary but alongside wanting to also be a journalist she hides a personal secret that holds her back and stops her mixing with her colleagues and her housemates at her lodgings.
She comes across Ellis’s photo and is transfixed by the image slipping it into a folder for her boss even though Ellis had wanted to keep it for his own personal use. The paper want to run with it but when the photo gets damaged (deliberately, Ellis feels) and his career prospects are dashed, Ellis risks all by returning to the town only to find the two boys have disappeared and their home is all closed up. But opposite is a young girl selling dandelions for money, with her cheeky brother up a tree and their mother Geraldine nearby. Persuading them to pose for another photo with the sign, which had been left behind, Ellis returns to the office to let the paper run the story.
The fallout from the fraud and the consequences for poverty stricken families in American come to the fore and eventually Ellis and Lily are thrown together to try and solve what then becomes another mystery when the other two children disappear and their mother appears to have died of a serious illness.
Against the backdrop of small town poverty in sharp contrast to the city full of the mob, gangsters and molls, speakeasy nights and casinos both will have to overcome their own private problems to unravel the disappearance of the children and the serious threats to their roles as investigative journalists.
The novel is based on a real image uncovered by the author who is a well-known journalist and best-selling writer. The characters are extremely well written and the plot twists and turns with superb skill.
A brilliant personal read that I devoured in one sitting I’d be keen to read others by this writer and I think the story will strike a chord with many book groups that would love its tale of truth, despair and hope.
Philipa Coughlan 5/4
Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris
Sourcebooks Landmark 9781492663997 pbk Oct 2018
LEFT FIELD: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk