Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child
“Cumming, an art critic, journalist, and author, has a grasp of the language that flows through a number of twists and turns that the story takes. She follows even the smallest of crumbs, determined to learn about her mother’s abduction and, further still, the secrets of her birth.”
In 1929, three-year-old Betty Elston is playing on the beach, and suddenly she isn’t. For five days a frantic community searches for the little girl, when suddenly she appears back home in good health and with new clothes.
Five Days Gone by Laura Cumming is a passionate and poignant story about a search for five days in her mother’s life—five days of which her mother has absolutely no recall whatsoever.
Throughout her own life, Cumming knew of this tantalizing mystery, but the details were buried in the fog of time. Not until she was an adult, married, with children of her own did she and her mother take on the adventure of sniffing out the details, only to find a community reluctant to share the minutiae of not only the event, but the child’s life in full.
Betty Elston was adopted by George and Veda Elston, a middle-aged couple, when she was three years old. Her birth name was Grace E. Blanchard. Upon adoption, she became Betty Elston, and never knew anything different until the search began in the 1960s.
Throughout this book, Cumming is precise in her details from the house where Betty grew up, through the description of Veda and George; the towns in which she lived; Betty’s life, with five days missing; and the people in these towns. Each character is given a life of his or her own and the role each played in the story of the kidnapping.
From Cumming’s perspective, everyone in the town of Chapel St. Leonards on the northern coast of England in Lincolnshire, knew some, if not all of the details of Betty’s birth and adoption. Everyone that is, except Betty.
The maze of starts and stops and dead ends and turnarounds befuddled both mother (Betty) and daughter (Cumming), but for the enthusiasm and curiosity of Cumming, the search might have stopped before it started.
Cumming, an art critic, journalist, and author, has a grasp of the language that flows through a number of twists and turns that the story takes. Cumming’s curiosity forces her to follow even the smallest of crumbs, determined to learn about her mother’s abduction, and further still, the secrets of her birth.
It is apparent from her writings about George Elston that Cumming is less than enamored of the man—a man who initially cherished his daughter, but at some point in time became remote, allowing or encouraging their relationship to become distant and unkind. Not abusive, just uncaring.
Veda is described as caring, but also somewhat remote, “Veda never played with Betty . . . Betty must stay inside the garden behind the hedge . . . or remain glumly indoors with Veda. Naturally, with hindsight, this must have had something to do with the kidnap . . .”
Throughout the book is a scattering of photographs since George’s greatest hobby was photography and yet in many instances Cumming describes these photos as sad depictions of Betty’s life.
The book also trails off frequently into descriptions of various classic works of art, where Cumming parallels the details of a picture with the details that emerge of Betty’s life. She compares Degas’ “The Bellilli Family 1859–1860” with the life that Betty was living with her parents. A very interesting and intuitive comparison.
Cumming’s ongoing search over a number of years and with travels throughout England’s northern coast pays her well in getting to the truth. The kidnapping, in the end, proves only a small piece of the puzzle. Learning the truth about the event leads to further trips through the maze until the certainty of Betty’s birth rises to the top.
Five Days Gone is a book that is hard to put down. Even the side stories prove to be metaphors of the life of a little girl who grew up without a past. It is a satisfying ending to a curious mystery.