Skip to main content

The Quiet Child


The Quiet Child

Literature doesn’t get much darker than THE QUIET CHILD. It is, strictly speaking, a historical thriller taking place in 1954 in the tiny town of Cottonwood, California. John Burley had good reasons for setting this wonderfully understated, perfectly paced work in that time and place, but he really could have done so in any small town, at any time. It is a story with which one can easily, though uncomfortably, identify and will not be forgotten any time soon.

The residents of Cottonwood seem to have more than their statistical share of physical afflictions, and there are those who will lay the blame for this on a small boy named Danny McCray. Six-year-old Danny --- the “quiet child” of the title --- doesn’t speak, not as the result of any physical limitation but from what was then called “elective mutism,” a voluntary silence imposed (as we currently understand it) by anxiety. It’s an affliction that is regarded as strange at best by the community and an infectious scourge at worst. The result is a kind of unofficial shunning of the McCray family, which includes Danny’s 10-year-old brother Sean, their father Michael (a teacher at the local high school), and their mother Kate, who is seriously afflicted with a wasting disease. The reader learns of these things in piecemeal fashion after the momentous trip to a local convenience store that opens the book.

"Burley is a gifted author, and his substantial skill set is on strong display in this work, which has overtones of the mystery, thriller and supernatural genres."

Michael, Sean and Danny have made the trip in order to buy ice cream. Michael and Sean go inside, while Danny is made to wait in the car, given his propensity to make people nervous. Sean goes back outside just as a stranger steals the car, kidnapping Sean and Danny in the process. A manhunt ensues, led by Jim Kent, a local plumber who is the small, peaceful town’s part-time sheriff. Kent feels as if he is in over his head, but does not give himself enough credit. The sheriff may be part-time, but he is a full-time citizen of Cottonwood. He has heard the rumors about Danny and is aware that the town’s citizens are by turns fearful and angry over the boy’s presence. He allows himself to consider the unthinkable --- that someone has decided that Cottonwood might be better off without Danny and has orchestrated his disappearance. With assistance from county and state law enforcement, Kent begins his investigation into the disappearance of the brothers.

Burley’s account of Kent’s pursuit of the evidence trail is first rate, giving a subtle nod to the technological limitations of the time (it takes Kent hours and days to do what could be done now in minutes), but the clock is ticking very loudly as the reader is given witness to what is occurring with the boys and their abductor. Michael, meanwhile, has undertaken his own pursuit, one that will indirectly both help and hinder Kent as he tries to locate the brothers before time runs out. Burley starts throwing unsettling corkscrews into the plot about halfway through the book. It seems that desperation finds its resolution in unexpected places.

Even if you are able to anticipate all of the various twists and turns of the story, you will doubt yourself until the very end. Burley is a gifted author, and his substantial skill set is on strong display in this work, which has overtones of the mystery, thriller and supernatural genres. Someone, somewhere, will adapt THE QUIET CHILD for the screen, but I doubt he or she will be able to create a mood that equals Burley’s. Read the book to get the full throttle feel of what occurs, and wait for your hair to stand on end.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 11, 2017

The Quiet Child
by John Burley