Writers and Writing

Michael Tidemann

Writers and Writing

2 mins
August 3, 2021

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey

Thomas & Mercer (ISBN 9781542008785)

Cassie McDowell is a typical Minnesota seventh-grader. She loves her parents and her sister Sephie. She has a huge crush on the cutest boy in her class. And she seems to be living an idyllic life in the woods of Minnesota.

Her parents also hold wild parties and neighborhood boys are mysteriously disappearing and reappearing after being sexually assaulted.

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey of Minneapolis, formerly Paynesville, Minn., pulls aside Cassie’s seemingly bucolic life to reveal a seedy reality that includes murder. Her novel, set in 1983, was inspired by the 1989 real-life abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling from St. Joseph, 30 miles from Paynesville.

Lourey has written an adult novel from an adolescent perspective that is spot-on. Few writers could pull off what she has done. We are right there, with Cassie, as her tender, adolescent world is dashed aside by the sordid realities around her. Lourey’s main character is totally convincing, captivating and as real as any person you ever met.

Perhaps most disheartening for Cassie is how those closest to her change, including her father, a struggling sculptor and damaged Vietnam veteran, whose hidden income comes from selling drugs.

It was dangerous to talk to dad when he was like this, though. We wore his anger like knives, and you didn’t want them aimed at you,” Cassie observed.

Her mother, a teacher, refuses to leave her husband even though Cassie begs her to flee. Tragically, she has fallen within the spell of her husband’s dangerous alternative lifestyle.

Even Cassie’s older sister Sephie changes before Cassie’s very eyes, abandoning her childhood as she becomes an adult way too early.

When Gabe, the boy for whom Cassie has a huge crush, disappears, Cassie sets out to learn what happened to him. What she learns is something too horrible to even imagine as she puts her own life in peril.

Lourey’s characters step off the page with realistic dialogue. Their interaction is totally believable, making them multidimensional on many levels. A sudden shift in Cassie’s reality from a typical rural Minnesota upbringing to her parents’ sordid party life is shocking yet credible, due to the breadcrumbs of clues Lourey has laid before us.

This is an amazing novel on many levels – a convincing adolescent narrator, offering a realistic sense of place and giving us the twists and turns of a great mystery.

It’s a fantastic book.

(Michael Tidemann writes from Estherville, Iowa. His author page is amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann.)

This article was orginally reported by
Michael Tidemann

Michael is an instructor at Iowa Lakes Community College and Buena Vista University.