What happens when the lost is found?

Kylie Ladd was only eight years old when her classmate Eloise Worledge was taken from her Melbourne home in the middle of the night.

Forty years later the memory still haunts Ladd.

"It was January, summer holidays, and we would both be starting grade three in just under a month," Ladd recalls.

"I was looking forward to grade three: at our school, grade three marked the juncture where you were allowed to use a pen to write with instead of a pencil; were permitted access to the dizzy heights of the monkey bars on the top playground rather than being confined to the sandpits of the lower. But Eloise never got to swing on those monkey bars.

"It was a hot night, the night she was taken, and her bedroom window had been left open, the front door unlocked. When her younger brother went to rouse her the next morning he found her bed empty. There were no signs of a struggle, and the flywire screen was cut."

Ladd remembers helicopters, police sniffer dogs, the media parked in their sleepy Melbourne suburb.

"All for naught. Eloise was never recovered. Four decades later though, her mother is still alive, still lives - I believe - in the area, must still wake every morning wondering what happened to her girl."

Her parents eventually separated. Her father Lindsay died earlier this year.

Ladd says her latest novel The Way Back is not about Eloise, but is in memory of her.

"It is about enduring not only an abduction, but also its aftermath, and whether such victims - and their families - are ever truly released."

The Way Back follows the story of the Johnson family. Charlie is 13 and loves horse riding and netball. One day, while riding her horse in the national park she disappears. A police search gives up nothing, and then four months later she's found wandering injured and filthy, miles from where she was last seen. The Way Back tells the before and after of Charlie's story, and that of her family, including harrowing scenes during the abduction. It's a story no parent wants to read.

For Ladd, Eloise's abduction has always been in her memories, but more recently she's been fascinated by the stories of girls such as Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, about their ordeal, but more importantly about what happens after these girls are found.

"I read the memoir of Elizabeth Smart, who was taken from her home in Salt Lake City, when she was 14," Ladd said. "She was held for nine months, this very virginal, religious girl, very protected. A lot of people were fascinated by the salacious details of the abduction but I was more interested in the after bit.

"In the memoir there was only a chapter or two about it, she said basically she'd put it behind her, moved on, that she wouldn't let it dictate her life, which is all great sentiment but I kept thinking how do you actually do that?"

She started researching recovery from abduction, reading psychology journals as well as as many news stories as she could find and she would always find herself asking the same question: what happens after?

"And it occurred to me that a few of my books are concerned with the 'after'," Ladd said.

"My first novel was After the Fall, which looked at the fallout after an affair, Last Summer looked at what happened after a death in a close group of friends.

"I guess I've always been interested in what happens after the credits roll."

Ladd still lives in Melbourne, is married with two teenaged children. Her daughter is a similar age to the character Charlie and also shares a love for horses.

"It was a hard book to write being a parent of a child the similar age, the research was interesting, but I found some parts, particularly the scenes where she was held captive, very confronting to write.

"But it made me think how a family could ever recover from an abduction, how the parents would face different things, feel different ways.

"The father in the book, Matt, is a fireman, and I wanted to think about how there are people in our community who face trauma every day, and how they deal with that."

Kylie Ladd in conversation with Kerri Sackville to launch The Way Back at Muse Canberra on Monday August 21, 5.30-7pm. Free but bookings are essential.

The story What happens when the lost is found? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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