The Shack Chapter 4: The Great Sadness

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of rape and abuse of a minor

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of brutal murder

We last left off with Mack thinking he had managed to prevent his child from dying. Well, he managed to prevent Josh from dying, at least.

Mack goes back to the campsite to try and find 6 year old Melissa, who isn’t there. Sarah’s teenage daughter, Amber, is also missing, and the search begins. They eventually find Amber.

“She just came back from taking a shower at this other place that still had hot water…But we didn’t find Missy,” Jesse added quickly, answering the most important question.

Screw Amber, I guess. It wasn’t important if she was found –the real important person here is Missy.

Mack contacts the campground authorities, gives them a picture of Missy, and they begin to search more methodically.

The Wallowa Lake campground has 215 sites divided into 5 loops and 3 group areas….they divided the camp into 4 areas and each headed out with a map, Missy’s picture, and an office walkie-talkie. Someone also went back to Mack’s campsite to report in if Missy turned up there.

Has anyone checked the child’s bed, or has that been packed? The amount of missing children who are found fast asleep….

In any case, at around 2pm, they find someone who thinks he’s seen her. A man named Virgil (cause that’s a real first name) is out camping with his buddies. They were up late last night, partying, but for some reason Virgil was awake early enough to see a little girl in a red dress in green truck.

“Like I told him…it was before noon. I’m not sure how much before noon, though. I was kinda hung over, and we really haven’t been paying much attention to clocks since we got here.”

I understand the “I was hungover and disoriented” thing. I’ve been there. That makes sense. But to add in “we haven’t been paying attention to clocks?” In 2007? Who talks like that? Who edited this thing?

Virgil is shown a picture of Missy, and says that that’s the girl he saw.

“She was wearing a bright red dress, I remembered that the little girl in the green truck was wearin’ red and she was either laughing or bellerin,’ I couldn’t really tell. And then it looked like the guy slapped her or pushed her down, but I suppose he coulda been just playin’ too.”

When Christian!Abby first read this, Christian!Abby was appalled that Virgil didn’t do something. But now that Atheist!Abby has had a hangover (or 5), she understands.

At this point, the park rangers decide they need to bring in the local police. Mack calls Nan, telling her it’s pretty serious, and she’d better come over.

After the forensics team sweeps the campsite, they ask Mack to cautiously enter and see if anything about the scene is different from the way he left it.

I am not a police officer, nor do I play one on TV. I would be really curious to know if the way the investigation is described in the book is the way it would play out in reality.

Mack tries to make himself focus. He sees Missy’s coloring book, and her crayons. He notices the red crayon is missing, and then the police officer, Officer Dalton, tells him that the red crayon is over by the tree.

“She probably dropped it when she was struggling with…”  his voice trailed off.

Oh officer Dalton. Seriously?

Mack demands the officer continue, and I’m not sure exactly what the protocol for this sort of thing is, but I’m pretty sure Dalton is seriously stepping over the line.

“We found one of her shoes near there, in the bushes where it was probably kicked off. You weren’t here at the time, so we asked your son to identify it.”

We know that neither Mack nor Josh is responsible for Missy’s kidnapping, because we’ve read the book jacket.

But the officer doesn’t know that. Shouldn’t several different officers be sitting down with Mack, Josh, and Kate separately in different areas and questioning them?  In fact, the majority of child abductions are done by someone the child knows. Mack, Josh, Kate, and everyone they spent time with at the campground should all be under suspicion right now. They should be interrogating everyone.

At the very least, the officer should be telling this in part so that he can observe Mack’s reaction. The officer should secretly be wondering is he acting guilty?

Or have I been watching too many episodes of Law and Order? I won’t be offended if you tell me that, I really want to know.

Mack’s reaction is to nearly pass out, at which point he notices the lady bug pin sitting on the coloring book. He’s positive that Missy doesn’t own anything like it. Because fathers always know what type of hair pins their children own. That was sarcasm.

Let that pass.

The officer tells Mack this could be a good or a bad thing. It’s good because it’s evidence, it’s bad because the killer probably left it there on purpose, as a way to tell the police that he was there.

“What are you saying?” Mack snapped. “That this guy is some kind of serial killer? Is this some sort of mark he leaves behind to identify himself, like he is marking his territory or something?”

We are told that Dalton looks sorry he mentioned it, and I am honestly not sure how this would play out in real life. For all he knows, Mack could have put it there himself. Or Mack could be wrong about Missy’s hairclip collection.

Dalton gets a call just them from the FBI in Portland, OR. Since Mack refuses to leave, Dalton lets him listen in on the phone call. Ummm wow. So, at this point, you haven’t ruled out Mack as the kidnapper, and you’re letting him listen in on FBI calls?

Worst. Officer. Ever.

Look, I get that Mack is our Point of view character, and you need him to know things. But you need to do it without also making him look like an entitled dick.  And right now Mack reads like an entitled special snowflake. Also, as an author, it’s a good idea to do some basic research as to how investigations are conducted. If you’re not willing to do that, skip the investigation entirely and summarize the details.

Dalton describes the lady bug pin to the FBI lady–there are 5 black dots on it, and he reads the serial number out loud. Agent Wikowsky, of the FBI, asks Dalton if he is in a place where they can talk without being overheard.

Mack nodded with exaggeration, and Dalton got the message. “Hold on a sec,” he put down the pouch with the pin and moved outside the area, allowing Mack to follow. Dalton was already way beyond protocol with him, anyway.

Yes, and why? Is Mack particularly charming? Is this the first time ever that Dalton has dealt with this sort of situation and therefore more likely to break protocol? Does he feel sympathy for Mack? What’s Dalton’s motivation here? He could (and arguably should) be fired.

Once he is in a “private” location,” agent Wikowski tells Dalton about “The Little Lady Killer.” They’ve been tracking him for 4 years across approximately 9 states. So far he’s killed 4 little girls under age 10. Every time he does, he adds another dot to the lady bug. He leaves the lady bug pin at each scene, and all of them have the same serial number.

Hang on, he leaves a tiny little lady bug pin at each crime scene? A pin that is so tiny it could be missed? What if some little girl’s father, not familiar with her hairpin collection, just sees it and goes, “oh, one of Daughter’s,” and never mentions it ever? I mean, this sounds like the type of thing that could easily be overlooked, which….doesn’t sound like typical serial killer style?

Let that pass. Each crime so far has occurred in campgrounds with a state park or reserve nearby, and forensics find nothing. They think the killer is “an expert woodsman and mountaineer.” They’ve been tracking him for 4 years, and there are 4 victims. 5 now that Missy’s gone. This guy (or woman, though the fact that the killer is male is never questioned in the text) kills at a rate of roughly 1 victim per year. The lady bug detail has not been released to the press, so it’s unlikely Mack could’ve put it there himself to throw suspicion. It also makes the fact that there are ladybugs on the cover of this book extremely creepy.

In other words, finding the pin is bad. It also makes it less likely that Mack would be under suspicion from here on out. Which fine, sure, I could go with that… but since he wasn’t questioned about it before this, I can only scratch my head at the incompetence of the local police department.

Mack is horrified by all this information, and the section closes with Mack wondering why God would allow all this to happen. We do not get shown Mack wondering it, we get told he thought it. It comes across as not too personal and stiff.

Mack and the kids are put into a local hotel and taken to dinner. Finally, Nan arrives, and the two hug and cry. The writing style is rather stilted, but the actions themselves feel real to me.

Except for the fact that Kate and Josh are… in suspended animation, I guess, since we’re not really shown how they react at all.

After considerable protest from Nan, they agreed it would be best for her to head home with Josh and Kate.

So, Mack decided this, then, likely disregarding the fact that Nan feels the same way he does.

Mack would remain to help in any way he could, and to be close just in case. He simply couldn’t leave, not when she might still be out there, needing him.

I’m sure Nan totally doesn’t feel the same way. Whatever.

Mack’s boss calls, telling him he’s heard about the story on the news. He tells Mack to take some time off work, and that he hopes Missy is found. It’s sweet, and it also means that Mack is privileged to have this sort of job.

We are told Mack talks to reporters, hoping that taking the case public will help them find Missy. A reasonable reaction, but it doesn’t pan out.

When Nan takes Josh and Kate home, there’s a lot of crying involved.

Kate, on the other hand, had become a rock, busying herself making sure everyone had each other’s addresses and email addresses. Vicki’s world had been shaken by the events, and now she had to be almost pried from Nan as her own grief threatened to sweep her away.

Vicki, I think, is one of the people who Mack has gotten to know on the camping trip. Why Vicki’s grief would trump Nan’s is beyond me.

And then there’s Kate’s reaction. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that Kate feels responsible for Missy’s abduction. If Kate hadn’t tipped over the canoe, Mack wouldn’t have had to rescue Josh, and if he hadn’t had to rescue Josh, Missy would still be alive.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I am not saying Kate should feel in any way responsible. What I am saying is that this is the way humans tend to react to such situations. It’s not hard to see why Kate has closed herself off and refused to speak to her parents. If the author was going for any sort of surprise reveal, he failed.

After Nan leaves, Officer Dalton, who Mack now calls “Tommy,” grab lunch.

Tommy Dalton was the father of 2 daughters himself, his oldest being only 5, so it was easy to see that this case struck a particular nerve with him.

This is telling, not showing. Here’s how you could show this, or at least, tell it a little bit better:

Tommy looked at Mack, who seemed desperate for any bit of news. He thought of his own 5 year old daughter, Maddy. He thought about something happening to her and shuddered.

Especially if this were juxtaposed with letting Mack listen in on the FBI phone call, this would at least make Dalton a sympathetic character instead of merely an incompetent idiot who lets potential suspects listen in on FBI phone calls.

Later that day, Agent Wikowski shows up in person.

A small, slim woman who was all fire and motion, and to whom Mack took an instant liking. She publicly returned the favor, and from that moment on no one questioned his presence at even the most intimate of conversations or debriefings.

Nope. Nope nope nope. I don’t care how much the FBI agent likes Mack, this wouldn’t happen. Nope. Nu uh.

And then finally, finally we see someone question Mack. A bit late, I might add. Wikowski first tells Mack that Dalton has turned himself in, so Mack doesn’t have to worry about protecting him. Wikowski is strangely fine with this, and it’s my personal head canon that she may have said that to Mack, but she’s also had a nice talk with Dalton’s boss.

“Have you noticed anything strange around your family these past few days?”

Mack was surprised and sat back in his chair. “You mean he’s been stalking us?”

“No, he seems to choose his victims at random, though they were all about the same age of your daughter with similar hair color.”

That is not picking victims at random. That is having a specific type of victim you are looking for. Sounds like poor Missy fit the bill.

Agent Wikowski goes on to explain that the killer finds his victims a day or so before he takes them, and then waits for opportunity to strike. Ummm that….could happen, but I thought serial killers were usually more methodical?

Mack ends up not remembering anything helpful, and Wikowski gives him instructions to call her if this changes.

After a section break, the police hit pay dirt. Some people spotted the green truck. We get a paragraph on exactly how they saw the truck, and it has to do with the way the road works and I don’t honestly care too much.

They noted that the pickup had a number of gas cans in the back, plus a fair amount of camping gear. The odd part was that the man had bent over toward his passenger side as if looking for something on the floor, pulled his hat down low, and wore a big coat in the heat of the day, almost as if he was afraid of them. They had just laughed him off as probably being one of those militia freaks.

This….makes no sense. One of those militia freaks? What the fuck does that mean? Does that mean they think this man is violent? That is not something to laugh about. In fact, I would be rather afraid of someone like that and try to put as much distance between him and myself as possible.

Tommy Dalton comes over later and tells Mack that, unfortunately, all of this fits The Little LadyKiller’s modus operendi.

With evening quickly approaching, an intense discussion began regarding the efficacy of immediate pursuit or holding off until daybreak.  It seemed that all who spoke, regardless of their point of view, were deeply affected by the situation. Something in the hearts of most human beings simply cannot abide pain inflicted on the innocent, especially children. Even broken men serving in the worst correctional facilities will often first take out their own rage on those who have caused suffering to children. Even in such a world of relative morality, causing harm to a child is still considered absolutely wrong. Period!

As much as I agree with everything the writer is saying, I think this should have been cut. Partly because it is telling rather than showing, and partly because of what I call the “no shit factor.” People don’t like it when children are killed? NO SHIT! “Causing harm” to a child is wrong?* NO SHIT. Everyone already knows this, so there’s really no need to discuss it. It’s especially out of place here, where it breaks up the action sequence.

The FBI and police decide to go out as soon as possible, because they really want to find Missy. We keep getting told how sincere they are, but I don’t need to be told this to believe it. I need to be shown it. But honestly, I don’t even need that because it’s not that hard for your reader to empathize. No need to clonk us over the head with exactly how sincere they are.

The section ends with Mack desperately praying for God to “take care of” Missy. Not to save her, not to bring her back, but to “take care of her.” Maybe it’s just because I watch too many sci-fi movies, but “take care of” is kind of ambiguous.

By 7:30pm the convoy….headed up the Imnaha Highway.

It’s labor day weekend. This gives them what, 2 hours or so of daylight?

We get some more details about what roads they take, and I’m sure I’d care more if I was from Portland. Eventually the team finds the truck. The search dogs also find a shack near a lake. Wikowski asks Mack to identify something.

A member of the forensic team opened the door of the shack to let them in….Mack immediately saw what he had come to identify and, turning, crumpled into the arms of his two friends and began to weep uncontrollably. On the floor by the fireplace lay Missy’s torn and blood soaked red dress.

The book never outright states what happens to Missy beyond “brutal sounding murder.” It never outright states Missy was raped. However, this is where I begin to suspect it is implied.

Why would the killer remove Missy’s dress? Especially after the dress was bloody? If he just wants to kill the girl, why does he bother to remove her clothing? The only way this makes sense is if there was a struggle as he was removing her clothing to…. well, you know.

I personally think the author may have wanted to get a little more detailed, but the editor told him to dial it back a bit. Or something.

After the section break, we are told that life becomes a blur for Mack as he deals with the ramifications. Missy is declared dead, though they never find her body.

Kate seemed to have been affected the most, disappearing into a shell, like a turtle protecting its soft underbelly from anything potentially dangerous. It seemed that she would poke her head out only when she felt fully safe, which was becoming less and less often. Mack and Nan both worried increasingly about her but couldn’t seem to find the right words to penetrate the fortress she was building around her heart. Attempts at conversation would turn into one way monologues, with sounds bouncing off her stone visage. It was as if something had died inside her and now was slowly infecting her from the inside, spilling out occasionally in bitter words or emotionless silence.

And yet, these parents never try taking her to a therapist. Honestly, the entire fucking family should be in therapy at this point. I’m not normally a fan of family therapy, but losing a child, a sister, isn’t something one just gets over. We’re told Josh has an easier time with it, because he remains friends with Amber. Huh? What about his pre-camp life friends? Don’t they comfort him?

In any case, this is what Mack refers to as The Great Sadness. Which…I’m divided on. On the one hand, it probably is how losing a child feels. On the other hand, this is such a weird way to refer to it that it almost feels like Mack is making fun of himself.

The fact that he was unable to bury Missy’s body magnified his failure as her daddy.

Um, what? If this read “The fact that he was unable to save Missy magnified his failure as her daddy,” that would work. (Note: I am not saying he should feel this way, because he’s not responsible. I am saying it would be a normal human reaction.)

Even if he said something like, “if he had been able to bury her body, he could have at least had some form of closure.” that also would work.

As it is, this is just clunky.

Now, 3 and a half years later, Missy was officially presumed to have been murdered.

Let’s hope that it did not take 3 1/2 years for her to be declared dead.

But let that pass. I like this. This gives me a sense of where we are in the timeline. It tells us that Mack and his family are over the initial shock, but of course, this isn’t something you ever get over.

We get a paragraph awkwardly stating how this affects Mack’s relationship with God. Apparently this event is why Mack tends to prefer a more formal relationship with his maker.

So when Mack received the note from “Papa” telling him to meet him back at the shack, it was no small event. And why the shack–the icon of his deepest pain?

Of Mack’s deepest pain? How about your daughter’s?

… A dark thought crossed his mind that the killer could be taunting him or luring him away to leave the rest of his family unprotected. Maybe it was all just a cruel hoax. But then why was it signed “Papa?”

Here’s the thing. Nan speaks at conferences, right? And lives in a small town? People know Nan calls God “Papa.” And, especially with all the media attention, the town would know the basic outline of the Missy Phillips case. They may not know all the details, but someone would know enough to be able to write the note and stick it in the mailbox as a sick joke.

Seriously, if I was God and I wanted to send someone a note, and I wanted them to know it was from me–I’d include some bit of information that only God would know. Something, perhaps, that I’d never told anyone. Or perhaps I’d say something about the future, about some small event that would happen.

I certainly wouldn’t write vague details that anyone who knew my family could pick up from conferences and the evening news.

The God of this story isn’t making a good case here.

The idea that it might be his daughter’s killer is a bit of a stretch, but not too far out of the realm of possibility. So why doesn’t Mack call the police?

Nope. Note is from God. Despite all appearances to the contrary, it’s totes supernatural.

The thought of God’s passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred scripture, properly interpreted, of course.

So, the author is King James Only? Who talks like this? “Moderns?” What exactly does “properly interpreted” mean? Why is this clunky paragraph here? It’s not even over yet. I cut some stuff out. Here’s the end of it:

It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges. Or was it guilt edges?

I’m sure whoever came up with that last sentence thought it was so clever. Set that aside. This paragraph is long and rambly and could basically be cut down to a few sentences.

Actually, now that I think about it, this paragraph reads like the sort of thing that was inserted in here after the fact to stimulate discussion in Bible study groups. (We do not have the version of the Shack that has discussion questions. I do not even know for sure that such a thing exists, but I would put money on it.)

In fact, it’s possible that half the things in this book that look clunky and don’t make sense were put there just so the author could create a study guide later.

I am not even going to address the author’s comment about “the uncivilized.” This post is getting long enough.

Who sent the damn note?

Ooooo we finally get some swearing! No seriously, with the target audience being evangelical Christians, I am surprised to find that in here.

Whether it was God, the killer, or some prankster, what did it matter? Whichever way he looked at it, he felt as if he were being toyed with. And anyway, what good was following God at all? Look where it got him.

Mack isn’t entirely wrong. We’re probably not supposed to think God is toying with Mack…. but couldn’t God meet Mack at his house? It’s kind of creepy to arrange a meetup at the place where some asshole murdered your daughter.

Mack feels he needs some answers. He thinks about how perfect Nan is, about how God really loves her because she wasn’t bad like him.

He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that didn’t seem to make any real difference or effect any real changes.

Mack has just lost a child. Why does he care about the “little religious social club” aspect of religion? That seems like something that people who haven’t lost any children would say. Those who have actually been through anything traumatic would think something like, “he was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of this supposedly all powerful being who sat around on his ass and did nothing.”

But no, Mack isn’t even allowed to be properly angry with God here. Instead he shows anger at…the churches. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fucked up things about the churches. (Maybe this was another thing shoehorned in to go along with the Bible study edition?) But one of the main weaknesses of the novel is that Mack really is angry with God, and he has every right to be. If we were to be shown some of that anger, this would be a stronger novel with a more realistic protagnoist.

Have you ever seen Bruce Almighty? It’s a mainstream movie where a man, Bruce, gets to be God for a day. The movie starts off with Bruce being angry at God for reasons I can’t recall. We know he is angry at God because we are shown a scene of him screaming at God.  And he’s screaming about God, not his followers. Bruce tells God exactly how mad he is, throws some prayer beads in a lake, and then stomps off in a huff.

That works. That works because we see and understand Bruce’s anger. Christian!Abby even thought that Bruce’s angry ranting could be a sort of prayer. Angry or not, Bruce was telling God exactly how he felt. And Christian!Abby believed God was ok with that.

What we see in this novel should be ten times worse, because Mack’s life is far worse than Bruce’s. Mack has been through some serious trauma, and then he lost his child. Instead we get to see Mack briefly thinking about anger at the churches.

This is not how real humans work.

The chapter ends with this line, and I’m too tired by now to even bother to point out why it sucks:

Yes, Mack wanted more, and he was about to get much more than he bargained for.

Basically, all that setup in the first few chapters, all those hooks that made me want to keep reading to get my questions answered? They’re gone now. There is no hook make me want to continue reading.

And the main plot of the novel hasn’t even happened yet!


*Though I will note that exactly what falls under the definition of “causes harm” varies a lot from culture to culture. (Though I’m sure all cultures would agree that kidnap/murdering a child is bad.)

2 thoughts on “The Shack Chapter 4: The Great Sadness

  1. Because people doubting the efficacy of God never consider that he might not exist – that’s not possible! They just end up hating him and hating the churches. Atheists are just mad cause the people in the churches are so happy and they’re so not.

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