When Hannah Benson ran away from home twenty years ago, she never looked back, nor did she ever plan to revisit the nightmare she left behind. But one day, she receives a phone call that her mother and sister are dead, and that she has been charged with taking in her sister’s 15-year-old daughter, Anna. But can Hannah face the horrors she so desperately wants to keep out of her life in order to connect with the niece she never knew? Can she withstand the haunting memories left behind in the “house of horror” she grew up in and walk away with her dark secret still safely kept within? This is what she must do to help Anna, and it’s a journey she’s about to take that will make her come face-to-face with the shocking reality of what really happened on the day she left home.
What Happened to Hannah by Mary Kay McComas is a gripping, haunting novel that was hard for me to put down. Readers go into this book knowing that Hannah survived something terrible in her childhood, and as we tentatively page our way through this chapter of her life, we grieve with her, cry with her and cringe with her as she relives the memories of growing up in an abusive home.
But that is what makes Hannah such a good character, such a REAL character. She literally comes to life on the pages.
Even so, writing a story about a character who has survived an abusive childhood can be tricky. Not a lot of writers can do it well. This is one kind of person where you just can’t explain away with some textbook, because people who have not been in this kind of situation have NO idea what it is like to have survived that kind of situation. They don’t know what it does to a person, how it changes a person and especially how it can hurt a person unless they have actually been there. So as I read this novel, I kept asking myself, how does the author know she got it right? Did she herself survive an abusive childhood? Has she been there, in her character’s shoes? Or has she spent a lot of time working with survivors of child abuse?
I spent some time asking these questions, but I came to a part of the story where all doubt was erased from my mind. I came to a part where Hannah was talking with Grady, her best friend who she once loved when they were teens, and the very words she said to him had me convinced the author had nailed her character:
“Growing up in a house like that you think, at first, that everyone lives like you and that the fear and the pain are normal so you try to accept it; you push it to the back of your mind and try to ignore it. But then you go to school or to church and you quickly see that you’re very different from everyone else. You see in their eyes that they haven’t been to the places you have. The other kids don’t respond to subtle changes in the teacher’s voice or automatically flinch when someone nearby swings their arms in the air. They speak with loud voices, talk back, and scrape their chairs across the floor. They laugh . . . with their mouths open. You wait for someone to twist their arm or pull their hair or lock them in a closet, but no one ever does.” (Page 286)
These are Hannah’s words, but they could be the exact same words of any child abuse survivor. I was literally taken aback after I read that, impressed with how well the author got it right. She got her character’s profile right with just that paragraph.
But this was not just a story of facing demons or putting the past to rest. It is a story of redemption, hope, survival, strength, forgiveness, love and, most of all, trust. It is a story that really touched my heart and moved my soul. The character Hannah was desperately in need of healing old wounds and, in the end, reading this story was a healing experience for this reader, too.
As a teenager, Hannah Benson ran away from home in order to save herself. Now, twenty years later, the past comes calling and delivers life-changing news: her mother and sister have passed away, leaving Hannah the guardian of her fifteen-year-old niece.
Returning home to bitter memories and devastating secrets, Hannah must overcome her painful past to pave a future with her niece, the last best chance at a family for both of them. She begins to create a new, happier life with her niece and rekindles a relationship with Grady Steadman, one of the few people she’s ever called a friend.
But she can’t forget what she cannot forgive, or lay to rest those ghosts that will not die. Will love and trust—and the truth—give her the strength to stand her ground and fight for what she deserves?