All Classical Radio James Depreist

Rene Denfeld’s new novel, ‘Sleeping Giants,’ is the best kind of story

The Portland author’s fourth novel, about a young woman seeking to solve the mystery of her lost brother, is surprising, immersive, and authentic.

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Portland author Rene Denfeld draws on the trauma in her own past and her work as a defense investigator in the justice system, which often takes her into the foster-care system. “The ways our culture invalidates trauma,” she says, “invalidates survivors.” Photo: Brian McDonnell

The best kind of story is one where you can never guess what comes next.

The ending is a surprise, too, though there were signposts all along the way, if only you were as clever in reading them as the writer was clever in misplacing them.

An added bonus, which does not occur as often as I’d like when I read novels, is an immersive narrative. The sense of place that overtakes you. You know this place. It is authentic. You can see, taste, hear, and smell it. It enwraps you.

All these wonderful surprises were part of the journey of reading Sleeping Giants, a new novel by Portland writer Rene Denfeld and published by HarperCollins.

This is Denfeld’s fourth book, after a five-year hiatus. In it, she continues to explore themes familiar to her: trauma, loss, resolution, and redemption.

Lost at sea

The plot, briefly: A young woman travels from Portland to the Oregon Coast to research the death of an older brother she only recently discovered she had. Like her, he had been shuffled into the foster care system shortly after his birth to a mother with alcoholism. Our young woman, Amanda Dufresne, was more fortunate; she was adopted as an infant by a loving couple.

Amanda encounters a man, recently widowed, who helps her find the grave of her brother, Dennis Owen. Dennis died, swept out to sea on an unforgiving stretch of coast 20 years before. He was 9.

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Why had that child run into the sea? What had his life been like? The man, Larry Palmer, is a retired police detective, and he has both the skill to help her and the time, now that he is retired and alone.

Young Dennis had been living in a residential facility with the ironic name of Brightwood. As Amanda and Larry peel away layers of the story, they discover a form of therapy imposed on the children there, a technique that has never objectively worked yet is still practiced today. Some therapists think it helps troubled children, but it is unremittingly cruel.

The story unfolds with parallel tales, twisting and recursive. One is about Amanda’s childhood and her job at the Oregon Zoo, where she tends Molly, a polar bear who can’t bond with other bears. Another is Dennis’ life at Brightwood and the despair that led him to the ocean. The narrative follows the psychologist, Martha King, and the darkness around her that extends beyond the therapy. Molly has a story line. As does Larry, disassociated from life after losing his wife.

Denfeld uses the term “braiding” to describe the interweaving of story lines and narration, switching points of view from Larry to Dennis, to Amanda, to Martha, to the janitor who tries to befriend Dennis. Events take place in the present, and 20 years ago. They are all fresh as tomorrow.

Denfeld sees setting as a character, too. “There’s got to be an organic interplay between the setting and the characters,” she said in an interview with Oregon ArtsWatch.

She has been there

Denfeld draws on rich experience in crafting these tales. As in her earlier books, children are lost.

“Being lost is kind of a theme, not just children,” she said. “People that are lost, people that feel lost, people that are shunned. There are a lot of ways to get thrown.”

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Denfeld has survived trauma in her own life, and she draws on that and on her day job as a defense investigator in the justice network. Her work often takes her into the foster-care system.

Her three children, now grown, were adopted from foster care. Denfeld is fierce about defending foster kids. “They are often demonized in literature,” she said, as “bad seeds.”

Even her liberal friends tried to talk her out of adoption, as she wrote in a “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times in 2017.

But, she said, “I think I’m made for it. I have such a traumatic background; it seems very redemptive.”

Turning our backs on abuse

Abuse or oppression, Denfeld knows, can make a person invisible. The tendency is to deny the abuse, try to justify it, or brush it away.

“The ways our culture invalidates trauma,” she said, “invalidates survivors.”

She doesn’t think of herself as a witness. “I’m doing what I’m called to do.” A friend calls it her “empathy radar.”

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People know they can tell her anything. She is OK with all that.

As a teen, she dropped out of high school, lived on the streets, then got a job at McDonald’s and was able to afford a studio apartment. It was a different time. She is 56.

She discovered the library as a girl and spent extended hours there, learning to write by reading.

She took home armloads of books from the library. Sacks of books from Goodwill.

“I’m very much an autodidact.”

Even now, she reads constantly. And eclectically. Favorites include West with the Night, by Beryl Markham; The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston; and books by Portlander Don Carpenter.

Like the books she admires, Denfeld’s Sleeping Giants is the best kind of fiction, taking on social issues while never being preachy. Above all, it just a good story — juicy, evocative, well-paced.

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A story where extraordinary people with ordinary names go to Alaska to find out what really happened when the polar bear Molly was captured. Who check out another residential facility in Arizona, closed after children die. Who poke the sleeping bear of past sins and nearly die for their curiosity. Two people who don’t give up till the mystery is solved and the ending that was foreshadowed but not expected is achieved.

Denfeld’s first book, The Enchanted, came out in 2017.

She says that she sat down to write her truth and it came out as fiction.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Fran Gardner spent most of her career in the newsroom of The Oregonian, as an editor and writer. Many years retired, she curates insights, photos, and poems into a weekly posting called Becoming. Find it at frangardner.substack.com.

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