Abduction! (2004), a middle grade mystery/thriller by popular children’s author Peg Kehret. It follows kindergartener Matt Sholter, who has been abducted by his biological father, and examines the lengths to which Matt’s family and community go to ensure his safe return. Set in and around Seattle, Abduction! won the Indiana Young Hoosier Award, the Iowa Children’s Choice Award, the Missouri Mark Twain Award, and the South Dakota Prairie Pasque. The novel was also a Junior Library Guild selection and an Edgar Allen Poe nominee from the Mystery Writers of America. The novel aims to educate readers on child abduction and the preventative measures to take in dangerous situations by focusing on themes of Intuition and Instinct, Strength Through Hope, and Situational Awareness.
This guide refers to the 2004 e-book edition published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Group.
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Content Warning: Some events may be distressing to sensitive readers. The novel’s (and this guide’s) focus revolves around childhood abduction. The novel alludes to gun violence, a fatal car accident, and animal negligence.
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The story, set in and around Seattle and told from an omniscient third-person point of view, opens with Denny Thurman, a prone-to-violence, impulsive gambler with an antisocial personality. Denny disguises himself as a UPS driver. He intends to lure the Sholter family dog, Pookie, from their home as bait to abduct his biological son, Matt Sholter, from school. Denny Thurman is Anita Sholter’s ex-husband; their marriage ended when Anita found out she was pregnant, only three months after they were married. Denny, who’s never cared about children or animals, left without further knowledge of or contact with his unborn child. In the years Denny is absent, he remarries twice, gets arrested, moves several times, and struggles with debt because of his gambling addiction. Over the years, his sister Celia has attempted to get him mental health assistance, but even after being diagnosed with an antisocial personality, Denny doesn’t believe he needs help.
When Celia and her husband, Winston, imply Denny is inferior to them because he doesn’t have children, Denny becomes determined to prove them wrong. Denny tracks down his ex-wife, learns that he has a son, and observes Matt outside Jackson School for a few days before putting his plan into action. Disguised as a UPS driver, Denny obtains access to the school and happens across Matt in the hallway. Matt is hesitant to leave with a stranger, but Denny seems to know his mother and dog by name. When Denny claims Pookie has been in a terrible accident and needs Matt’s comfort on the way to the vet, Matt finally agrees to leave with Denny.
Matt’s older half-sister, Bonnie, is 13 and constantly gets annoyed with her kindergarten-aged brother. Because she has to look after him until their mother gets home from work, she misses out on mall trips with her friend Nancy. Matt also eats all of the strawberry ice cream, and Bonnie often gets tired of having to be the catcher when Matt pitches baseballs. At school, she and Nancy discuss her recurring nightmares, which revolve around her fear of losing Matt, Pookie, or her mother as suddenly as she lost her father, Anita’s first husband, a fire-fighter who died when a burning roof collapsed on him. After their discussion, she is haunted by a sense of impending disaster and feels anxious.
After school, while Bonnie heads to the library to return a book before meeting Matt in the bus line, Denny successfully drives off with Matt and Pookie. When Bonnie can’t find Matt in the school or on the bus, she immediately alerts school officials to his disappearance. Her dread grows as Anita and the police are called.
Matt becomes suspicious of Denny when he realizes Pookie is not injured. Denny manages to convince Matt that he’s his biological father by providing his ID, but he quickly becomes annoyed with Matt’s questions and lies about where they’re headed. Matt complains about having to use the restroom, so Denny stops at Marymoor Park. While Matt is in the restroom, Denny ties Pookie to a post and abandons him at the park. He refuses to turn around when Matt realizes Pookie is gone and begs to go back to the park to get him. Matt sees that he’s made a mistake and that his mother would never have allowed him to leave the school with Denny, father or not.
Anita and the police arrive at Jackson School to interrogate the school officials and Bonnie. An AMBER Alert is issued to notify the community of Matt’s abduction, and when Bonnie and Anita return home, they discover Pookie is also missing. Detective Morrison is assigned to the case. They begin the investigation by calling local animal shelters for information on Pookie and quizzing Anita about Denny. Anita firmly believes Denny has no interest in Matt because he left when he found out Anita was pregnant and has never been obligated to pay child support.
Denny brings Matt to his apartment in Seattle, where he showers his son with gadgets and gifts. Matt is suspicious of the games and DVDs because they contain graphic and violent material his mother would never allow. To stop Matt’s questions about Anita and Bonnie, Denny lies, telling Matt that his mother and sister died in a car accident earlier in the afternoon. Matt grieves the tragic loss of his family and decides he doesn’t like Denny, who doesn’t even seem upset about Anita’s and Bonnie’s deaths. Denny is overjoyed by the realization that Celia and Winston might give Denny money toward the costs of raising Matt if he plays his cards right. Denny can then use the money to pay off his gambling debts and perhaps gamble more with the leftovers.
Anita and Bonnie alert their neighbors and friends of Matt’s disappearance and urge everyone to keep an eye out for him. Volunteers search the neighborhoods surrounding Jackson School while Bonnie creates fliers to pass out at grocery stores and hang up around town. She also uses the internet to reach out to everyone on her mother’s email list. Media coverage on Matt’s abduction explodes and renews Bonnie’s hope that Matt and Pookie will be safely returned soon. Bonnie, missing Matt more than ever, begins to regret every negative thought or complaint she’s ever had about him.
Fred and Ruth Faulkner, an couple in their 70s, find Pookie without his collar in Marymoor Park and adopt him as their own. They skip the nightly news for days to take Pookie on walks, so they miss the news about Matt and Pookie’s disappearance. As the days pass, food is delivered in mass quantities to Bonnie’s house. She cries, believing that food is meant as condolences for a death in the family, but her mother assures her it’s the community’s way of showing support. When no further evidence of Matt’s disappearance is found, the AMBER Alert is called off, media coverage decreases, and Bonnie feels hopeless. Fred and Ruth happen to catch one of the last news reports of Matt’s disappearance, and, recognizing Pookie as the Sholters’ dog, they return him to Bonnie and Anita.
As Matt spends more time with Denny, he becomes used to Denny’s volatile moods, which change based on whether he loses or wins his bets. On the high of a big win, Denny indulges Matt with surprise tickets to a baseball game on Saturday. The day of the game, Denny dyes Matt’s hair a different color and forces him to wear a disguise. Bonnie also attends the game with her friends from the track team, and she spots a boy in the stands who reminds her of Matt. Though all signs point to the boy not being Matt, Bonnie follows her intuition by inspecting the section further.
Denny forces Matt to leave the game early after receiving a threatening call from a man collecting a debt. Desperate for the funds, Denny plans to take Matt to Winston and Celia earlier than planned. On their way out of the stadium, Bonnie spots them and decides to covertly follow. Her cover is blown when Matt excitedly calls her name; Denny abducts Bonnie, who is unable to escape when Denny threatens her with his concealed gun.
On their trip to Winston and Celia, Bonnie attempts alerting several people to their situation—the police, women in a restaurant bathroom, the hostess, teen boys in their car, the ticket woman at the ferry dock, and two men on the boat—but no one believes her or calls for help. Upon boarding the ferry, Bonnie gives Matt the souvenir baseball she bought from the Mariners’ stadium. On the ferry to Bainbridge Island, Denny quickly decides that Bonnie is much more trouble than Matt and is a constant threat to his plans. Holding Bonnie at gunpoint, Denny forces her to the back of the boat, where her body will fall into the water after he shoots her. In a last-ditch attempt to defeat Denny, Bonnie yells “Zinger!”—a code word between her and her brother that calls for Matt to throw his hardest, fastest pitch. Matt answers her call with a pitch that hits Denny square in the back of the neck. Denny drops the gun to grab his neck. With Denny unarmed and distracted with tackling Bonnie, Matt calls for help. Several adults answer his call and apprehend Denny.
Denny is arrested, and Matt and Bonnie are safely returned home to Anita and Pookie. Their community celebrates their safe return, and the happy news televised on every local news channel that night. All the people who’d previously ignored or overlooked Bonnie and Matt while they were desperate for help are shocked with hearing the news of their abduction and overcome with guilt at their part in the crime. Meanwhile, Bonnie’s nightmares no longer bother her, and when Nancy invites her to the mall, Bonnie eagerly looks forward to spending time with her little brother instead of bemoaning the fact that she must watch Matt after school instead.
By Peg Kehret