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by Catherine Atkins
Puffin, 1999
Review by Su Terry on Apr 7th 2003

When Jeff Comes Home

When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins is an interesting novel about the return of a kidnapped boy. Told from the boy’s point of view the novel describes the social and psychological impact that the return of a kidnapped boy has upon his family, his friends, and most of all upon the boy himself.

When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins is set in Central Valley California. Three years earlier, 13-year-old Jeff Hart was kidnapped at a rest area outside of Fresno, California. At the start of the novel, Jeff, now 16-year-old has been dropped off near his home by his kidnapper a man Jeff knows only as “Ray”.  Jeff has endured much at the hands of Ray, but has come to accept their life together.  He is reluctant to return home and with good reason. His reception is anything but welcoming. His family members and his former friends are for the most part strangers and treat him like a stranger. He is put through a grueling interview process by Dave Stephens, the FBI agent assigned to his case yet he is unable to describe his experience or the man called “Ray”.  Part of his problem may be that Jeff remains ambivalent about his return. He is often unsure if he wants to endure the struggle to stay with his biological family or simply return to his life with Ray. Ray is also not completely out of the picture. He remains just on the edge of Jeff’s reclaimed life. Just when Jeff’s life becomes intolerable, Ray plays his most powerful card forcing Jeff to choose once and for all between Ray and his biological family.

I wish that I could say that this novel is truly unforgettable, or over-whelming intense, but unfortunately it is not. The characters spend their time tiptoeing around Jeff. They are unsure how to treat Jeff and often too focused on their own difficulties coping with his unexpected return. Other characters are intrusive prying for details with prurient interest. As Jeff slowly adjusts to his new life, the story of Jeff’s life with Ray is slowly revealed to the reader. Jeff for his part seems unusually well adjusted considering his abduction experience. (See author’s comments below.) The ordinariness of the story while it may indeed accurately portray kidnap victims’ experiences may be too slow paced and undramatic for modern readers. For those seeking a more lurid account about the sexual abuse of a young boy try Little Chicago by Adam Rapp also reviewed here.

Catherine Atkins, the author of When Jeff Comes Home, claims that her inspiration for the novel was drawn from an actual kidnapping case. In the historic case, seven-years old Steven Stayner was kidnapped in Northern California in 1972. He was sexually abused for seven years before he escaped. In 1980 at the age of 14-year-old, Stayner ran away from his captor with a recently kidnapped 5-year old boy. The author writes of the case,

I grew up near Merced and was about Steven's age when he returned, so it was a *big* story in our area.  I was always really curious about how Steven could go back to high school and face what would happen there.  That thought was the spark I used, years later, when I thought of writing a book about a kidnapped boy who returns home.  I didn't want to take Steven's story for my own; it was important to me to make Jeff and his family and his circumstances very different.  The core feeling remained the same though---how could a teen boy come back and face the speculation of his peers and others about such an incredibly painful event in his life?

The Steven Sayner Case also inspired a 1989 TV miniseries entitled I Know My First Name Is Steven. That same year (1989), Stayner, then 24-years old, was killed in a motorcycle accident

 “Catherine Atkins is a teacher as well as a writer. She has taught in alternative education programs for the past ten years, working with students of all ages, from elementary level to adults. Most of her teaching experience, however, has been with teenagers.” Her first novel entitled When Jeff Comes Home was released in 1999. It was nominated for the Garden State Book Award and the Eliot Rosewater Book Award. It was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, a Booklist Top Ten First Novel, an IRA Young Adults Choice, and was selected as one of the 2003 California Collection for High Schools. Her second young adult novel entitled Alt. Ed will be released in April 2003.

When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins is an interesting but not particularly emotionally intense novel. It is unique in that it picks up where most kidnapping stories end. Sex and violence occur off-camera and is described in a vague way. In light of recent news events, this book might be worth reading. I recommend this book. (Fiction. 13+)

© 2003 Su Terry

Link: Author web site

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.