In this ongoing series, I’ll be looking at the Young Adult genre fiction books that impacted my youth. I’m starting with the works of novelist Lois Duncan. Ransom (originally titled Five Were Missing), her first YA genre novel, was published in 1966.
When a film puts a protagonist with past trauma into a terrifying situation, the results can be both frightening and rewarding. Take for example, Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005). The opening scenes of the film reveal the death of main character Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident on their way back from a rafting trip with friends. Then the film moves forward a year, where a still-fragile Sarah is embarking on a cave-diving trip with the same group of friends. Knowing her past trauma makes the audience especially wary of not only her mental and emotional health, but the potential physical dangers that may lie ahead. As it turns out, the risk of getting lost or injured is the least of Sarah’s concerns; there are monsters lurking in the shadows.
It is this kind of setup that allows Lois Duncan’s first YA genre novel Ransom to resonate so deeply. Five teenagers are on the bus on their way home from school when they are kidnapped and held for ransom by two men and a woman. It’s already a scary situation, but what makes it more so are the back stories of these five teenagers.
Each teen has his or her own traumas to wrestle; each reacts to the current situation as a result of their individual trauma. Jess, the daughter of a military family, has just moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico; Dexter was damaged by polio as a child and now lives with an uncle who treats him more like a roommate than a son; Marianne is a self-confident cheerleader but resents her new stepfather; Bruce is an awkward freshman who worships his older brother, Glenn, a high school football star and golden boy whom everyone adores. Each teen also presents a face to the world that is at odds with how they actually see themselves (or how they truly are), and that makes their shared situation more fraught with drama.
Duncan isn’t afraid to depict innocent people being killed, albeit without giving readers all the gory details. In the beginning, the teens assume that the new bus driver is subbing for their regular driver, Mr. Godfrey. Only later do they discover that the kidnappers murdered him before hijacking the bus. This realization strikes mortal fear into all of them; it’s pretty heady stuff for a YA novel written in 1966.
Later in the book, during an escape attempt from the kidnappers, Dexter is shot in the arm, but the situation is presented so that it seems like he may have been killed, thus furthering the notion that anything can happen in Ransom; there might not be a happy ending.
Still, the kidnappers are not the only threat. Some of the teens’ past traumas were not inflicted upon them, but by them. Bruce’s adoration of his older brother seems naïve, but understandable. Dexter makes it clear from the beginning that he does not care for Glenn, something that could be construed as youthful envy, but as events unfold, the reader learns that Dexter’s instincts are completely correct. People are not always who they seem to be.
It’s not just that the underdogs in the novel become heroes; it’s also that the people who are considered the saviors turn out to be enemies. It doesn’t take long to find out that Marianne’s worship of her estranged father is misplaced, but what is unexpected is how much of a sociopathic villain Glenn turns out to be, and how shocking it is when his parents admit it to themselves.
“I look into his eyes – and there’s nothing in them. I mean, he has beautiful eyes, but they’re empty.”
This eventually becomes an integral aspect of the novel. The teenagers’ attempt at escaping goes awry and in the process one of the kidnappers (Buck) tries to run down Bruce with his car, only to fall to his death off a cliff. That’s when a previously mentioned subplot about a fellow student who was injured in a hit-and-run accident comes to the forefront.
Glenn tries to convince Bruce that it’s not worth saving Buck. It then dawns on Bruce that Glenn’s damaged car and prior reluctance to tell their father about it is not because he let his insurance lapse, but because he is the one who hit Joan Miller’s brother and left the scene.
This realization is far more horrible than the prospect of meeting death at the hands of the kidnappers. Even though Dexter doesn’t bleed to death and Marianne’s stepfather Rod arrives and saves the teenagers, Bruce must still live with the knowledge that his brother is a sociopath. Worse still, he’d promised Glenn that he wouldn’t tell his parents about the damaged car and the lapsed insurance before he knew the truth. It’s a terrible situation with potentially long-lasting repercussions and its impact on Bruce cannot be overstated.
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on Bruce’s dilemma and how this might impact him, the last chapter of the book is a mere half-page long and rather unsatisfying from a narrative point of view. There is no follow-up to Dexter’s uncle’s response upon finding out that his nephew endured such a harrowing ordeal. Instead, the reader is asked to believe that a budding romance between Dexter and Jesse has solved all of his problems.
These aspects of Ransom, along with the often-corny dialogue (did teenagers really talk like this in 1966?) makes it fall short of being a genuine classic example of YA suspense fiction. Despite its provocative themes, it only hints at the greatness that Lois Duncan would eventually achieve.
Next up: Lois Duncan’s They Never Came Home