The Way Back, Kylie Ladd

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

In the author notes to THE WAY BACK, Kylie Ladd says she became interested in the idea behind the novel when US teenager Elizabeth Smart was reunited with her family months after she was abducted. Whilst the media focused on the story of her captivity and release, what intrigued Ladd was how Elizabeth could/would recover. As more long-lost girls, kidnapped and treated brutally started to be found, Ladd's interest peaked.

As both a psychologist and a writer, what fascinated me wasn't so much how these girls endured what they did, but how (and if) they were able to pick up the pieces of their old lives and start again. The lost child is a popular trope in Australian arts and literature, but I was interested in exploring this from a slightly different angle: not focusing on the loss per se, but what happens next, when what is lost is found.

After reading THE WAY BACK, I read this note and it set me to thinking hard about the novel that had preceded. The obvious question is does it explore this question adequately - "what happens next"? Can't help but think it nailed much of that aspect. Even being unaware of the premise whilst starting THE WAY BACK, there's something confronting, emotional and involving about this novel. It is a different focus. The reader will react with it in a very different way. The pain and after-effects of what Charlie Johnson experienced in four months of captivity complicate everything, and you can clearly see the life-long affect that something like this must have on a young girl. You see it from her point of view, from her families and from her friends and community.

Charlie's voice is well presented, she's a believable, horse obsessed 13 year old girl, damaged by the ordeal she experiences. As a counter point her abductor is portrayed as a damaged individual as well, presenting the reader with the possibility of nuance on the face of evil. The downside in this context is that it splits the focus, calls for overwhelming compassion and understanding on the part of the reader, and it's a lot to comprehend. Somehow the idea that the abductor is equally damaged and vulnerable seems to unfortunately downplay the ordeal that Charlie experienced. It may be a perfectly valid viewpoint but it weakened the message here, along with the use of overtly convenient "close calls" and coincidences that again muddied the central message too much. 

When Ladd is exploring that central idea -  "what happens when what is lost is found" - THE WAY BACK is indeed powerful. Moving, confronting, and very powerful.

Year of Publication

All she wanted was to escape. But why does she still feel trapped. A gripping psychological drama by the author of Mothers and Daughters and Into My Arms.

Charlie Johnson is 13 and in her first year of high school. She loves her family, netball and Liam, the cute guy who sits next to her in Science - but most of all she loves horses and horse-riding. Charlie's parents have leased her a horse, Tic Tac, from the local pony club, but one day they go out for a ride in the national park and only Tic Tac returns...

Four months later, long after the police and the SES have called off the search, Charlie is found wandering injured and filthy, miles from where she was last seen. Her family rejoice in her return, but can anyone truly recover from what Charlie's been through? When a life has been shattered, how do you put the pieces back together? 

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