Johnny Merrimon, the central figure in John Hart’s The Last Child, is a lineal descendant and spiritual soul mate of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. Like them, this 13-year-old survivor is resilient, endlessly resourceful and determined to do the right thing in a world that settles for moral shortcuts.

Johnny’s self-imposed mission is to find his twin sister, Alyssa, who went missing a year earlier, presumably kidnapped. Her disappearance has shredded his once idyllic family. Now his father is also gone, driven away by guilt—so Johnny’s mother supposes—for having failed to pick up Alyssa when he was supposed to. Bereft by this double loss, Johnny’s ethereally beautiful mother, Katherine, has fallen into drugs, alcohol and the brutal arms of her former suitor, Ken Holloway, one of the richest men in (mythical) Raven County, North Carolina, where the narrative unfolds.

Police detective Clyde Hunt is just as obsessed as Johnny with finding Alyssa. His single-minded pursuit of the case has already cost him his wife and is threatening to snap his already frayed ties to his son. To complicate matters, he is becoming increasingly attracted to Katherine. Reduced to a summary, the story sounds like a soap opera. But it’s not. Here, the interior struggles far outweigh the interpersonal encounters.

Constitutionally a loner, Johnny resorts to every device he can think of—from Christian prayer to Indian rituals to door-to-door canvassing—in his unrelenting search for his sister. At the same time, he’s scheming feverishly to protect his mother. He becomes a footloose avenger, a truth-seeking creature of the night, fearful only of failing those he loves. If, like Huck Finn, he risks going to hell for doing his duty, then so be it.

Hart knows how sensitive boys feel and think behind those tough, smirking masks and with what ferocity they cling to their causes. Johnny is innocence and experience in perfect balance.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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