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"Safe and Sound" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Missouri author Laura McHugh returns with her newest thriller “Safe and Sound,” a page turner set in the Show Me State. Local readers will enjoy McHugh’s references to places like Springfield and Branson, but they won’t find down-on-its-luck Beaumont on the map, the seamy community that serves as the setting of her book, peopled with characters reminiscent of those in the Netflix series, “Ozark.” In Beaumont, people “…know every twig on every branch of everyone else’s family tree.”

It's been six years since Grace, then a high school senior, disappeared without a trace and Grace’s mother, Elsie, is once again lamenting her loss to anyone who will listen in a vigil held annually in Beaumont. Elsie certainly won’t win any awards for Mother of the Year, but neither will her sister Shannon—a stripper at a local dive with two high school daughters, Amelia and Kylee, who’ve been raised with their mother entertaining men in their tacky family home.

Grace felt responsible and close to her cousins Amelia and Kylee when they were younger, often babysat for them while their mom was pole-dancing, drinking and drugging. In fact, Grace was at the girls’ house the night she disappeared, the cousins upstairs, unaware of any disturbance, despite the fact that something went terribly wrong, blood in the kitchen left in “puddles and smears.”

The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Grace and Amelia and Kylee, the Grace sections offer readers the twisted backstory of Grace as a youngster struggling with problems at home, especially when Norman, her mother’s no account brother drops in and out of their lives unannounced. Let’s just say Uncle Norman is far from normal.

Grace is an honor student and the end of high school holds great promise of college scholarships, college a goal Grace has yearned for—the teen is more than eager to put Beaumont in her rear view mirror and never look back, especially because mom has a new boyfriend, Jimmy, who’s just a bit older than Grace, another slimy bloke.

Amelia and Kylee certainly don’t have it easy. They miss Grace, who served as their substitute mother. Amelia wants to flee Beaumont with Kylee and is working the night shift at Waffle House to save money to get away with her, once Kylee’s finished high school. Naturally the two have love interests, which complicate their future plans. Amelia makes sacrifices to work her job, chief among them dodging advances from her crook of a boss.

By creating an array of unsavory townspeople, with minor roles, McHugh opens up possibilities for any one of them to be the culprit in Grace’s disappearance. Writing descriptively, McHugh paints a bleak picture of a town that traps innocents born into dysfunctional families. In doing so, she creates a mood of unease, distrust and ick as the story builds in action, reaching fever pace by the complicated conclusion. Readers will feel great empathy for Grace, Amelia and Kylee who try to survive in a town, and in families, that try to quash their hope.  

For a decade, I’ve followed McHugh, since her debut “The Weight of Blood” was published. In August 2021, McHugh presented at Washington Public Library on her new book “What’s Done in Darkness.” Hearing this soft-spoken author speak, I was aghast that such a genuinely nice person could write books with such ghastly murders and miserable people.   McHugh succeeds again. “Safe and Sound” is her best book yet.



 

 

 

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