Rene Denfeld discusses “The Child Finder”

When: 4 p.m. July 12

Where: Sisters Public Library, 110 N. Cedar St.

Cost: Free

Contact: Paulina Springs Books, or 541-549-0866

When: 6:30 p.m. July 13

Where: Roundabout Books, 900 NW Mt. Washington Drive, Bend

Cost: Free

Contact: or 541-306-6564

In her second novel, “The Child Finder,” Portland author Rene Denfeld doesn’t sugarcoat the trauma and horror surrounding the abduction of a 5-year-old girl who disappears on a family trip to choose a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. However, she skillfully avoids common tropes about both victims and perpetrators to create three-dimensional characters and open a window into an all-too-common cycle of violence.

Denfeld will discuss “The Child Finder” at events in Sisters on July 12 and Bend on July 13. Her first novel, “The Enchanted,” was published in 2014. It won the French Prix award and numerous other accolades. Denfeld also previously released three nonfiction works.

The setting and prose of “The Child Finder” — a dark, snowy forest and a child with a vivid make-believe world — makes it seem like a dark fairytale at times. Denfeld has said that the idea for the story came to her while she was walking her dog in the middle of the night after an unusually heavy snow storm in Portland.

In the suspenseful thriller, Madison Culver’s desperate family turns to Naomi, a private investigator who specializes in locating missing children. Three years after Madison’s disappearance, her family believes she is still alive and being held captive.

But as Naomi races against the clock to find Madison, she also begins to unlock forgotten fragments of her own traumatic past as a lost girl.

Denfeld’s writing is inspired by her work with sex trafficking victims and people incarcerated in U.S. prisons. She is a licensed private investigator and has served as the chief investigator at a public defender’s office.

This career has involved her in hundreds of cases where she witnessed people at their best and their worst, in some of the most extreme circumstances.

In addition to her social justice advocacy, the author has been a foster and adoptive parent for 20 years. Denfeld’s sensitive characterizations of Naomi, Madison, and various other characters in the novel, call on her own personal and professional experiences.

Denfeld has also talked in past interviews about the sexual abuse she endured as a child at the hands of the man she thought of as her father and other pedophiles and sexual predators in her orbit.

The sum of these experiences make Denfeld’s writing wrenching, multilayered and out of step with the many typical narratives provided about the subjects of sexual violence, crime and punishment. Often in those stories, the victim is portrayed without any flaw (as though being less than perfect would diminish their suffering), while the offender is characterized as a monster with no redeeming qualities.

However Denfeld’s nuanced depiction of Madison’s captor, B, while not absolving him of responsibility for his actions, provides some understanding of the background and motivations that lead him to act as he does. Denfeld makes it possible to empathize with B on some levels, while also despising his treatment of Madison.

Meanwhile, the imagination and hope Madison maintains and employs with her alternate reality as “the snow girl” provides a different survival mechanism than the rage and violence that B has succumbed to.

Underpinning the suspenseful story are larger questions about the cycles of violence that seem to be repeated too often in the U.S., where victims frequently go on to become perpetrators. In her life and writing, Denfeld seeks to understand both offenders’ and victims’ backgrounds and circumstances as a means to identify and break these cycles.

While you might assume Denfeld’s work and advocacy could wear her down or make her cynical, the author said in a 2017 interview with The Rumpus, “The longer I’ve done this kind of work, the more I’m in awe at the resiliency and the strength of the human spirit, and the more I feel connected with the magic of the world. I think the world is full of magic.”