A review of The Measure of the Moon by Lisa Preston

Reviewed by Sara Hodon

The Measure of the Moon
by Lisa Preston
Thomas & Mercer
Paperback: 336 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1503937574, April 2017

A young boy falls off his horse in the Washington wilderness and witnesses a crime—a young boy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hundreds of miles away, a young photographer struggling to launch her career and find a way out of her stifling marriage comes across an old photograph of young children in the woods. The connection between these two seemingly unconnected individuals is the premise behind Lisa Preston’s novel The Measure of the Moon.

By all accounts, young Greer Donner is a typical 8-year-old boy—precocious, fearless, and adored by his parents and much-older siblings. One day he saddles up his horse and goes for a ride into the woods, which he knows well from his many rides with his older brothers. But he falls, his horse runs off, and Greer is faced with hiking home alone in the dark. But as he heads out, he hears screams. Purely by coincidence, he finds a man severely beating a woman on a dead-end road. The man sees Greer and asks the young boy his name and those of his relatives. Terrified for his family’s safety, Greer offers up the information. The man threatens to not only kill Greer, but the boy’s entire family should Greer ever say a word about what he’s just seen, then leaves the scene. Petrified, Greer agrees and finds his way home, a young boy changed forever.

In Seattle, photographer Gillian Trett can’t stop obsessing about the photograph she discovers in an old camera her husband Paul bought for her at a yard sale. Who are these children? What happened to them? Are any of them still alive? Why do the expressions on their faces stay with her? She is determined to find out as much as she can.

Like most children who experience trauma, Greer begins acting out. First he turns sullen and withdrawn. Then he tries staying up all night to watch for the man who threatened to hurt his family, which results in him falling asleep during school and other inopportune times. His parents notice the change right away. Greer, who is of course desperate to share everything he’d seen, is too scared to take that risk. The fear and burden of trying to protect his family continue to take a toll. His family wants to help him but isn’t sure how, especially since Greer is too afraid to share the reasons for his odd behavior.

Meanwhile, Gillian is at a personal and professional crossroads. Her freelance photography career is marginally satisfying; while the creative aspect is there, the financial aspect isn’t as reliable. She’s hoping for that magical image that will give her the professional breakthrough she needs. When she stumbles across the photograph of the children in the woods, she suspects that perhaps she’s found it. She teams up with a writer looking for his own break, and together the pair work on researching and writing an article that will hopefully unlock the mystery of the photo and take their careers to the next level.

Preston crafts a parallel mystery that keeps the reader turning pages. What’s the link between these two characters? They appear to have nothing in common and are leading completely unrelated lifestyles. Gillian is an insulated city girl focused on her career and making a half-hearted attempt to save her crumbling marriage; Greer’s family is urban, outdoorsy, close-knit, and protective of each other. Preston’s lead characters are well-developed, particularly Greer. She perfectly captures the mental, emotional, and physical strain one experiences when harboring a painful secret—the fact that Greer is the youngest child in a large, close-knit family makes it even more heartbreaking, as he is surrounded by parents, siblings, and siblings-in-law whom he knows would love to “make it go away” (as children often ask their parents to do when they see that monster in the closet or under the bed). Greer’s experience in the woods is much too heavy a burden for a child to carry, yet he takes it upon himself to be his family’s protector, not realizing that the adults in his life can take care of themselves—and him. His devotion to his family is admirable.

For me, Gillian was less likable. I related to the feeling of being at a crossroads, but overall Gillian struck me as incredibly selfish. She’s in a marriage that’s not exactly bad, but it doesn’t light her up like it used to…she’s not thrilled with her profession…she’s estranged from her sister…she’s stuck in a rut, but like so many of us, she’s not sure how to get out of it. She becomes obsessed with the children in the photo, leading her to some unexpected discoveries that involve the Holocaust, lost love, and one of the children in the photo’s search for redemption. Her search leads her to a local lautari, or bow maker, Alexandru Istok, who emigrated to America with his sister during World War II and became an apprentice to a master bow maker upon his arrival. He’s vague about his family history, which of course just makes Gillian want to learn more. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say both Gillian and Alexandru’s sister Agnes are shocked by what they learn.

The secondary characters are less defined. Gillian’s husband Paul is more on the periphery of her life than in the center; her career and her search for that elusive key to happiness is very much her focus. There seems to be a distance between Gillian and Paul that’s either the result of Gillian’s growing unhappiness with her marriage or the fact that she never fully let her husband into her troubled past; she seems to keep him at arm’s length so the true commitment that marriage requires is lacking. Other key secondary characters include Harold Brayton, a shadowy figure who lingers in the background of the story but whom Greer immediately recognizes during a trip to the bank with a family member, and Paul’s sister Liz, who shows up at their house with her baby after leaving her husband, afraid and unsure of where to go or what to do next. Gillian is marginally interested in Liz’s dilemma but leaves most of the responsibility for her presence in their lives to Paul. Note to readers: these two characters are essential to the storyline—watch them closely!

Lisa Preston crafted a story that is well-written and engaging; the characters of Greer and Gillian are dissimilar enough that readers will certainly want to know how they could possibly be connected. The parallel storylines are intriguing on their own; once the link is revealed, I felt particularly relieved for little Greer, whose real-life “monster under the bed” is slayed by his courageous, quick-thinking family.

About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.