The back cover of Brent Laporte’s debut novel Hope Burned promises that the story is “at once as bleak and moving, tense and beautiful as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” The comparison fits: both books are emotionally provocative tales of horror and hope. I’d even venture to say that Hope Burned suggests the dangerous repercussions of child abuse with the same sinister intensity that The Road stresses the importance of a healthy ecosystem to human survival.
A nameless boy endures years of abuse at the hands of his father and grandfather, who keep him isolated and enslaved on their remote farm. The only other human being he ever encountered was a young blond girl whom his guardians / jailers lured to the property and later raped and killed. We know nothing of the boy’s mother, but one surmises that she probably met a similar fate after giving birth. The memory of the girl haunts him for the remainder of his days. When he finally escapes and stumbles into civilization, he is taken in by kind people who finally give him a name- Tom. Although he grows into a successful and happily married adult, Tom can’t stop questioning what kind of a future he has when his past refuses to stay buried. So he returns to the farm, kills both his father and grandfather, and writes a memoir to help his young son to understand why.
Laporte structured Hope Burned so that it reads like a letter from Tom to his son. It has no chapter divisions, but in this instance such structure might hinder the flow and personality of the prose. Because Tom presents his story as both an apology and confessional, the reader’s voyeuristic instincts are quickly aroused, making it the type of book that’s consumed in a couple of sittings.
The character of Tom reminds me a lot of Canadian-born Sanford Clark, who was abducted from his Saskatoon home by his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, in 1926. Northcott took the boy to his isolated chicken ranch in California and used him as farm hand and sex slave. During that time Northcott also raped and murdered at least three young boys, setting the authorities on his trail. In 1928 they rescued Sanford Clark, whose testimony ensured his uncle’s conviction and execution. (The entire tragedy later became the subject of a Clint Eastwood film, Changeling.) Clark returned to his native Saskatoon and became a leading citizen, but the memories of Northcott’s victims stayed with him. Like Tom, he always blamed himself for his failure to save them.
This is one novel that I highly recommend to True Crime fans. The people and events have so many real-life equivalents that it’s easy to forget that Hope Burned is fiction and not a survivor’s memoir.