This is the dilemma faced by Ronnie Swan, a sheltered young girl from a deeply religious family, whose childhood ends when she witnesses the murder of her two younger sisters. Not quite thirteen, Ronnie is babysitting on a bright fall day, hiding in the shed as she waits for her sisters to find her. Instead of their excited laughter, there is only silence. When Ronnie opens the door, it is to a sight that will crack her life in two. One minute a carefree girl, the next an over-burdened adult in a child’s body, Ronnie’s rage and grief burn down to a single hot coal: She will seek her own vengeance against Scott Early, a young graduate student from Colorado who suffers from schizophrenic illness. Given treatment instead of punishment, he has been spared the fate Ronnie believes that he deserves.
At first driven nearly mad with grief, Ronnie’s parents finally find peace in forgiveness, and can go on with their lives. Ronnie cannot. The beliefs that once were the rock beneath her feet have become the walls of her prison.
And so, when Scott Early is released from treatment to live with his wife and newborn baby daughter, Ronnie again becomes a changeling – this time deliberately. She relinquishes her home and identity to ingratiate herself with the Earlys, now living in California. But as Ronnie comes to know the family, she begins to struggle with what she once knew for a fact, that the Earlys must experience exactly what she and her parents endured, except without the element of violence. Headstrong in the logic of youth, Ronnie wonders if anyone who has caused such misery deserves joy, and if the baby girl is really safe with such a father, stable as he now seems. Her chance to act on her plan arrives; and Ronnie hesitates – just one moment too long.
It was this chance to grapple with a character’s moral struggle, and with those ancient questions (such as, do two wrongs make a right?) that gave rise to Cage of Stars. Ronnie is essentially prisoner to a universe in which right and wrong are clearly marked; but good and evil slip into shades of gray. I chose for her family to be Mormons because I wanted her to have been raised somewhat “apart” from the world, among traditions that others would find curious, but not so much as, for example, Amish folk. She needed to be both different from and fully engaged with the larger world. As both a Mormon and a country girl, innocent Ronnie seemed somehow even more vulnerable than a sophisticated girl would be.
As I did when I read about the events that later inspired The Deep End of the Ocean, I’m the one who always wonders, what happens afterward? What happens when the doors close, the friends go back to their own lives, and the stories disappear from the newspaper? That’s where I step in.