On the first page of Sadie, the reader is told exactly what to expect: “It’s a story about family, about sisters, and the untold lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love … and the high price we pay when we can’t. And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl.” In the novel, girls are neglected, hunted, assaulted, and killed.
But in an effort to be different than your average girl-in-peril thriller, author Courtney Summers has added a clever meta device. That opening plot synopsis comes from a podcast transcript that runs through the novel.
In alternating chapters, we hear from Sadie, a runaway 19-year-old vigilante protagonist determined to kill a pedophile who abused her and later killed her younger sister, Mattie. The balance of the book is devoted to West McCray, a public radio producer hosting his first serialized true-crime podcast, based on Mattie’s murder and Sadie’s disappearance. Initially West isn’t interested in the search for Sadie as a subject; he finds it overly familiar and uninteresting. “Girls go missing all the time. … we’ve heard this story before.” He comes around, though, and eventually regrets his dismissiveness.
Summers specializes in depicting the raw emotions of traumatized girls, drawing her reader deep into the characters’ anguished and often unhinged thoughts. Sadie’s “the result of baby bottles filled with Mountain Dew.” She was raised by an alcohol- and drug-addicted single mother, Claire, who gave less and less maternal time and affection as her daughter got older, wiser, and more judgmental. When Claire had Mattie, six years after Sadie, the older child happily took on a lot of the mothering – and then all of it after Claire walked out on the girls at ages 15 and nine. The two have a surrogate grandmother in the trailer park where they live – it is she who alerted West to the girls’ story – but Sadie is Mattie’s primary caregiver until the latter is killed at age 13.
Soon after, Sadie nabs a switchblade, buys a car on Craigslist, dyes her hair, and heads out to find the man she believes is the murderer: a former boyfriend of Claire’s, named Keith, who sexually abused Sadie. She starts her search at a highway diner he used to rave about. When we see Sadie interacting with others, she has a pronounced stutter, a defensive smart-ass attitude, and is unafraid to brandish the knife.
The novel follows a successful schema: Sadie tracks down a person connected to Keith, pumps them for information, and moves on. In the next chapter, West tracks down the same people (albeit a few months after Sadie) and tries to piece together who she’s looking for and where she’s going next. For the most part, the reader knows much more than West about Sadie’s motives, condition, and whereabouts. But the reporter also uncovers information the reader hasn’t heard from Sadie.
While the novel’s marketing material references the Serial podcast as an inspiration, West’s chapters feel more akin to NPR’s S-Town, where a male reporter from New York City gets caught up in a mystery in small-town rural America. Dramatic tension comes from the fish-out-of-water scenario, an urban media elite visiting trailer parks and townie bars. West is out of his element and is sometimes called on it. “I see the way you look at [us] sometimes,” Claire says to him, “like we’re such poor little fools. You think you can take our pain, turn it into something for yourself. A show.”
The most striking thing about Sadie is how dark it is. This is the stuff of HBO dramas: Mattie’s murder feels straight out of True Detective. The pedophilia storyline isn’t necessarily graphic, but it’s unrelenting, from Sadie’s flashbacks to the introduction of a new girl currently in Keith’s “care.”
This is a YA book with adult crossover appeal. It’s big-screen ready and both voices in the alternating chapters are written with confidence and insight. It leaves you haunted by Sadie’s and Mattie’s tragic lives and mindful of all the real-life missing and murdered girls with similar stories. Most importantly it questions why society is simultaneously desensitized and addicted to these narratives and the ethics of making entertainment out of them. The characters in this book are fond of saying, “I can’t take another dead girl.” But the novel suggests culture consumers are not ready to close the book on this morbid genre.