New Novel Spotlight: Searching for Vivian by Babette Hughes
In 1966, seventeen year old Vivian Russell disappeared like smoke. The seemingly senseless murder of her parents in their home in Cleveland, Ohio was as unexplainable as her vanishing act in its aftermath. Her younger sister, Emma-traumatized by the horrific event- grows into a capable and relentless investigator who decides to do whatever it takes to find her. Her search takes her through the turbulent sixties- Viet Nam, The Black Panthers, dead ends, and bank jobs. Along the way, she finds herself and, whether she is prepared for it or not, the truth.
The Cleveland Press called the murders senseless because the Russells had no known enemies and lord knows there wasn’t much to steal; all they had was a pickup, an old black and white TV with one snowy channel and little else. A detective was quoted in the article speculating that perhaps the killers had gone to the wrong house in some kind of a tragic mistake. But the baffling part was that the murdered couples’ oldest daughter, Vivian, 17, home from school with a cold that day, had vanished like smoke.
But events like that, tragic and bizarre as they are, are soon forgotten, except perhaps when someone passes the house and wonders whatever happened to Vivian Russell. Sometimes someone hints knowingly that the Russells were drug dealers, or fences, or Russian spies. (The more years that transpired the more exotic the theories.) But for the most part people went on about their lives and, of course, as the years passed there were those too young or too new in town to have even heard of the murders or of Vivian’s disappearance.
Even her sister, ten-year-old Emma, seemed to leave it behind. Even from the beginning. Even from the first day when she came home from school on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and found neighbors staring behind yellow police tape. Her parents’ bloody bodies were being carried on gurneys into an ambulance. Her big sister was gone. Struggling with her own grief, her Aunt Eleanor couldn’t understand the child’s stoicism and as the weeks and months passed she worried about her more and more. It isn’t natural, she complained to her husband–it isn’t normal for a ten year old not to cry and carry on, not to grieve. The child acted as if she were just visiting her aunt and uncle as she sometimes did when her parents were alive; as if she hadn’t just lost her mother and father; as if her own sister hadn’t vanished into thin air. Although Thad Fisher was as shocked as anyone else over his in-laws’ murders, the truth is that he never really liked them and was secretly rather pleased to have them out of his life. They were damn hippies as far as he was concerned and it infuriated him the way Ellie ran over there all the time when they were alive. He had no objection to taking Emma in— where could the kid go? She was a quiet, well-behaved ten-year-old, a bit dull for his taste, but a small eater and so quiet you forgot she was around—actually an easy kid for a childless couple past middle age to raise. And she was someone Ellie could chatter to and leave him in peace.
Still, it annoyed him the way the child refused to let Ellie out of her sight, following her from room to room, even coming into their bedroom at night in her white nightgown like an undersized ghost. After he locked their bedroom door she wailed and beat on it until she fell asleep on the floor and Thad carried her into her own bed.
Ellie had eagerly welcomed Emma’s arrival. Like many childless women she envied her friends who had children; she even envied the problems and commotion and mess they complained about. She thought of her sister’s murder and Emma’s sudden arrival as a kind of terrible deal from God; she lost her sister but received the child she had prayed for. Quiet and small, transparent almost, Emma seemed to take up less room than the beautiful big doll Ellie had bought her the day after she arrived, which Emma ignored. So she offered her a puppy and then a kitten, but the child merely shook her head.
She tried to get her to talk about what happened. She tried to get her to ask questions about that terrible day. She wished the girl would grieve so she could comfort her. Or just cry. Something. Anything. But it was as if her family had been mysteriously wiped from Emma’s mind like an eraser on chalkboard leaving the same cloudy, formless residue. Ellie took Emma to a psychiatrist who specialized in treating traumatized children; a Doctor Isabelle Dryer. She drove her to her office on Fairmount Boulevard twice a week until Dr. Dryer told her that although Emma came dutifully, she simply would not talk about the loss of her family and that after almost six months any further sessions would be a waste of Mrs. Fisher’s money and her time.
Her aunt went to PTA meetings and teacher conferences and Home Room Nights like a mom and bragged to Thad about Emma’s A’s. (Who didn’t seem very impressed at this information; his disapproval of Emma’s parents hung in the air like fog.) Emma always hurried home after school to be with her Aunt Ellie. She liked her quick hugs and jokes; she liked seeing her in the shining, good-smelling kitchen in her high heals and sheer hose that she wore even around the house, even to the super market. (Ellie had beautiful legs the way some heavy-set women do.) She liked the way she sat down with her at the round yellow kitchen table while they talked and ate her freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Evenings, as Ellie prepared dinner, Emma followed her around the kitchen, putting lids back on jars, returning milk to the refrigerator, wiping the counter, sweeping the floor as the Mixmaster whirled, driving Ellie crazy.
She put up with Emma’s constant presence wondering if the child associated disorder with the blood and violence of her parents’ deaths. The child lived in a state of discipline and order, doing her homework, volunteering to clean blackboards and empty trash at school, cleaning her room, pressing her blouses. Where there were no rules, she made them up as if she had to be this perfect child or she would get lost in the world like Vivian.
Her room was always in perfect order, clothes hung according to type, (school, gym class, dressy for dinners out with her aunt and uncle) color and season; the hangers all uniformly plastic, her shoes lined up by season and color (and later heal height although they didn’t exceeded an inch and a half). She catalogued her aunt’s recipes by soups, appetizers, entrees and desserts, and then alphabetized them within each category. She began to arrange them again by calorie and cholesterol count until her aunt stopped her. She organized and indexed the Fishers’ record collection according to type (classical, jazz, show tunes, operas, soloists.) She arranged books on their shelves not only by fiction, non-fiction and authors, but also by genre’s: mystery, horror, biography, (separated from autobiography) science fiction, politics, literary classics. She even created a section of books made into films. Her aunt and uncle shook their heads at each other and refused to let her into their closets or Thad’s den.
Emma did her best to act like a normal kid so everyone would leave her alone; still she refused to sign up for extra-curricular activities at school, her fantasy life more interesting than any chess club or work on the school paper. In a favorite daydream Uncle Thad died of a mysterious illness leaving her Aunt Ellie all to herself. When the telephone rang she imagined it was Vivian calling to say she was back from a trip to San Francisco or New York. Sometimes it was England. She pretended that her parents were divorced and that one of them would come back for her, or that they sailed to England on the Queen Mary like Patricia in her Social Studies class who stood up and bragged about her parents’ trip. Sometimes she pretended that her parents were both killed in a respectable car crash that wasn’t their fault. Half aware that her daydreams were an excessive and neurotic substitute for reality, they were so sweet and satisfying that if they also made her a bit strange she didn’t mind.
[About the Author]
Born in Cleveland Ohio, Babette Hughes grew up in the time of Prohibition and bootleggers. Her father was one of the first bootleggers in the country, and was murdered by the Mafia in a turf war at the age of 29. Babette was just two at the time.
Writing has allowed her to draw from her unusual life experiences to create her characters and tell their stories (and sometimes cautionary tales) in vivid detail.
Now 93, she writes every day with fluidity and grace. “The truth is liberating, but sometimes elusive.” She explains. “I’m always looking for it and how to best write about it, and I probably always will.”
[Find Out More]