For many people, watching the local news is a routine occurrence, an accompaniment to one’s dinner or a way to wind down the day before bedtime. But for April Henry, it sparked an idea that prompted her to write a novel about a young woman’s life-changing experience.
Henry’s book—Girl, Stolen—is based on the events surrounding the 2005 kidnapping of a blind Portland, Ore., teenager named Heather Wilson, who had been waiting in the back seat of her mother’s car when it was suddenly hijacked. The story made headlines due in large part to the girl’s incredible bravery and quick thinking, which ultimately lead to her safe return. (While riding in the car with her kidnapper, Heather cleared her throat and asked if he would let her out of the car. After the driver finally slowed the car down, he asked her what she had in her purse, to which she replied, “Nothing you’d want.” After she was dropped off, she used her cane to walk around and used her cellphone to call the police who came to pick her up. The car was found abandoned a day later, but the police never caught the driver.)
For Henry, the story was more than an act of heroism. “I was watching Heather and her mom being interviewed, and I kept asking myself a series of what-if questions,” said Henry during a telephone interview from her Portland home. “I remember thinking that she had not been in the car that long when it was stolen. What if the guy hadn’t forced her out of the car and instead kept her?”
It was months before Henry began writing her story, but in the meantime, she attempted to contact Wilson. During a local book event, Henry met the coordinator of the teen program, who happened to be a local television producer. The two pooled their search efforts to look for Wilson, but struck out. “It turns out Heather’s name is super common,” Henry said. “There’s even a Congresswoman with the same name.”
Eventually, Henry had the idea of trying to locate Wilson through the Oregon Commission for the Blind, and after cutting through much red tape, the two finally connected last month. “We’ve been e-mailing back and forth,” Henry said, and they are both slated to appear on ocal television next week—the first time they will meet, face to face.
But in the meantime, Henry had a book to write, and she began to develop her main character, Cheyenne Wilder, with somewhat different circumstances. “Heather had first thought a friend was playing a trick on her, but in the book I had my character be sick with pneumonia and hiding under a blanket,” she explained. “I also made Cheyenne blind from having been in an accident as opposed to being blind from birth.”
To further mold Cheyenne into a believable character, Henry interviewed blind people to better understand what their lives are like. “I wanted to give my character a guide dog because the people I spoke with said it changed their lives,” she noted. “They said the dog makes them more approachable and gives them a talking point. Also, with a dog, you can walk a lot faster.” (Wilson, in contrast, uses a cane.) Henry also visited a dog school for the blind where she learned how to harness a guide dog herself.
To incorporate the belief that blind people rely heavily on their other senses, Henry spoke with blind people about distinctive smells and decided to use the telltale scent of peppermint chewing tobacco in the book. With regard to touch, Henry viewed a number of videos about people who are blind-sighted: sensing objects without being aware of them, so they can avoid them. “I have it so that Cheyenne is aware of things, but she still runs into them,” she says. And because sound is also a distinct sense for the blind, Henry opted for Cheyenne to drive on a gravel road with gravel at book’s end, so she could discern the sound from pavement.
Six years after Wilson’s kidnapping and six months following the publication of her book, Henry is thrilled about finally getting to meet Wilson. “It will be interesting to watch her in action, like how she reads in Braille—is it with one hand or two?” Henry mused. Wilson is now studying to be a Braille proofreader and is also pursuing her ambition to become a writer.
Asked if she was concerned whether or not Wilson would take offense at turning her experience into a work of fiction, Henry expressed relief over the girl’s acceptance of her book. “Heather thinks it’s cool that her moments of terror turned into something like this,” she said.
“It’s all about the what-if and the wondering what we would do,” Henry concluded. “It’s looking at the choices that Cheyenne makes and cheering her on. It was very important to me that she never gives up—it’s what we’d all like to think we would do.”
Girl, Stolen by April Henry. Holt/Ottaviano, $16.99 Sept. 2010 ISBN 978-0-8050-9005-5