Susie reflects on her great passion in life—photography. She took so many photographs that Jack would make her choose which rolls she wanted developed—there were too many to send out all at once. Susie loved the feeling of stopping time, and thus possessing a moment and an image, that her camera gave her.
Susie’s obsession with photography during her life on Earth is a symbolic mirror of her obsession in the afterlife with watching and collecting small moments observed from on high. As the years go by, Susie hoards these moments—the good and the bad, the sad and the joyful, the strange and the overlooked.
One evening in the summer of 1975, Jack and Abigail make love. The next morning, she leaves for her father’s cabin in New Hampshire. Over the course of that summer, neighbors leave pies, cakes, and casseroles on the front porch for the Salmons. One afternoon that fall, Grandma Lynn calls and says she has been thinking about coming to stay. Jack argues that their family has just begun to start over, but Grandma Lynn insists—she wants to help him and the children. Jack wonders where Lynn will stay, and then the answer becomes obvious—Susie’s room.
As the Salmon family endures another loss, things in their household begin to change. Grandma Lynn’s arrival speaks to a new chapter in all their lives—one without Abigail and Susie, but one which no longer has the time to mourn either loss. The Salmons know now that they must keep marching forward in the face of their grief.
In December of 1975, a year has passed since Mr. Harvey packed up and left. There has been no sign of him. One day, Lindsey asks Hal Heckler to give her a ride to the police station, so that she can find out what they are doing to try and catch Harvey. While waiting at the station, Lindsey spots something familiar on Detective Fenerman’s desk—it is her mother’s red scarf. She confronts Fenerman, and asks him why he has it. Fenerman answers that she must have left it in his car one day. Lindsey suddenly understands everything. Hal ushers her from the station and takes her back to his bike shop, where she cries to Samuel in the back room.
Lindsey still wants justice for Susie. Though her family is moving on, she is not ready to give up on securing answers for her big sister. As she attempts to demand them from Fenerman, she finds something else, and begins to put the pieces of the puzzle of her mother’s disappearance together. The news shocks her, and she is devastated to learn that her mother has betrayed their father—and in a way betrayed them all.
Buckley, now seven, builds a fort. Jack does not help him—it reminds him of building the bridal tent with Mr. Harvey. Instead Jack watches from the house as Buckley, day after day, plays alone in the yard. When the fort is finished, Buckley shuts himself up inside it for hours at a time to read comics, often pretending in his saddest moments that he is strong like the Hulk. One day, in school, Buckley writes a story about a little boy who goes into a hole and never comes out. Buckley intuits from his teacher’s reaction that there is something wrong with the story. He folds the assignment up and brings it into Susie’s old room, tucking it up in the secret hole beneath Susie’s box spring.
Buckley is growing into a solitary boy whose childhood fancies are never allowed to flourish unfettered—everything he does is done in the shadow of his sister’s death, and all the emotional trauma from the events surrounding it that still linger over his family. The sensitive Buckley absorbs a lot of this trauma and grief, and he processes it in strange ways—by hiding out alone, and by spinning dark stories that try to make sense of the few details he has picked up about his sister’s murder, despite his family’s attempts to shield him from knowing too much about it.
In the fall of 1976, Len Fenerman visits the evidence room at the police station. The animal bones unearthed from Harvey’s crawl space are there. Finding them prompted a dig beneath the basement for Susie’s remains. Nothing turned up, though, and so Len ordered another dig through the cornfield. The dig turned up an old Coke bottle bearing both Harvey’s fingerprints and Susie’s, and Fenerman at last believes Jack, knowing he was right all along. Mr. Harvey has disappeared into thin air, leaving behind only his dollhouses. Fenerman attempts to trace Harvey through those who commissioned the dollhouses from him, but nothing has turned up. As Fenerman paws through the evidence box, he finds Susie’s old jingle-bell hat, and begins thinking of Abigail. Susie pities Fenerman, as he has failed both in solving Susie’s murder and loving Susie’s mother.
Susie captures a “snapshot” of Len Fenerman in this private moment of shame, guilt, and self-loathing. Len refused to believe Jack, and rather than doubling down to make sure that all possible leads were thoroughly investigated, he engaged in a doomed dalliance with Abigail. By dividing his attention in this way, Len failed at both undertakings—his relationship with Abigail, and his fight for justice for her daughter. As Susie watches Len reckon with all of this, she is not angry at him—she pities him, knowing the depths of his shame and grief.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a hunter has just come upon something shiny on the ground—Susie’s Pennsylvania keystone charm. Sticking up out of the ground near the trinket are the “unmistakable bones of a child’s foot.”
This “snapshot” reveals a gruesome new development—Susie’s charm has been found at the site of yet another of Harvey’s murders.
Abigail makes it through just one brutal winter in New Hampshire before driving out to California to find work in a winery. A neighbor from New Hampshire told her that the work was easy to get, physical, and completely anonymous. As Abigail makes her way west, she sends Lindsey and Buckley postcards from every town she stops in. Once in California, she spends her days off from her new job wandering the streets of tiny upscale northern California towns. She cannot escape her grief, however, and finds herself frequently assaulted by memories of Susie.
Abigail, torn apart by grief, shame, and self-loathing—much like Len Fenerman—cannot escape the reality of the loss she has suffered. The old saying “Wherever you go, there you are” proves true in this passage as Abigail finds that she cannot outrun the pain of her daughter’s loss, and instead has simply compounded her grief by adding the shame of having abandoned her remaining two children.
Jack organizes a memorial for Susie each year. As the years pass by, fewer and fewer friends and neighbors come, though students from the high school join the vigil each year. Susie does not like being remembered by total strangers—she feels as if she is being “resurrected and buried within the same breath.” She hates being remembered only as the “murdered girl,” and longs for those who actually knew her to commemorate her.
Susie is a rather vain character—she is obsessed with how she is remembered on Earth, and with how her loss has spread throughout her small community. Susie always wanted to be the most-loved and the center of attention when she was alive, and in death she is no different. It is very difficult for her to watch herself be forgotten, and to see the memory of who she actually was fade away and be replaced with the vague outlines of a voiceless victim.
Ray grows more and more handsome by the year, and Susie watches him with a longing “different from what which [she has] for anyone else.” As Ray prepares to go off to Penn to study medicine, Susie worries that he will forget her. However, Ruana slips a book of Indian poetry into Ray’s luggage, and as he unpacks in his dorm, the book—and the picture of Susie long ago tucked inside it—slip out.
In this section of the novel, many of the characters’ arcs overlap. Just as Abigail escaped to try to forget Susie’s loss, Ray tucked the picture of Susie away in an attempt to “bury” her. Now, as he begins a new chapter in his life, fate causes her to resurface in his dorm room. Ray can try to forget Susie, but he knows deep down that he never will.
Grandma Lynn gives Buckley a book about gardening. Abigail calls from California every once in a while. Her conversations with Jack are strained and hurried. Jack often tells Abigail that he misses her, but Abigail shows no signs of wanting to come back home.
Buckley and Lynn’s project of gardening together is symbolic of their attempt to build a new life in the wake of the losses they have suffered, but with Abigail’s calls—which only serve to remind her family of her betrayal—it is difficult to move on.
In June of 1977, Ruth moves to New York City. There she lives in an old woman’s walk-in closet and bartends to make her rent. She writes poetry and wanders the city, convinced that she has a “second sight” which allows her to see the world of dead women and children. Meanwhile, at Penn, Ray reads a study that describes a large percentage of nursing home patients observing a figure standing at the edge of their bed at night. These visions, the study says, are not a spirit or the Angel of Death, but a series of small strokes which often precede death. Ray wonders what it would be like to stand at the edge of a patient’s bed and feel their soul brush past him as they slip into death.
As Ruth and Ray grow up, they separately consider what their respective conceptions of the afterlife means to them. Ruth attempts to grow more and more attuned to the breaks in the barrier between the world of the dead and the world of the living, while Ray, whose profession demands of him practicality and objectivity, dreams in secret of whether the spirit world is in fact real.
Mr. Harvey has been “living wild” along the Northeast Corridor, crisscrossing through Pennsylvania and staying occasionally in the outlying areas of Boston. He still enjoys returning to Norristown to drive through his old neighborhood under cover of darkness.
Mr. Harvey is on the run, but cannot help returning to Norristown on late-night victory laps to check in on his old neighborhood. Harvey is a keeper of trophies, and he sees his undetected flight from Norristown as another victory—though it is intangible, and he cannot possess it in any other way than constantly returning to the place he left behind.
Buckley, now ten, spends more and more time in his fort, allowing only Hal Heckler, Nate, and Holiday the dog inside. Hal helps Buckley to waterproof the fort, and Grandma Lynn develops a little crush on the handsome young Hal.
This passage demonstrates the contrast between the impulse toward isolation and the desire for connection within the extended Salmon family as the years go by.
In December of 1981, Len Fenerman receives a call from a precinct in Delaware—a murder in Wilmington has been connected to a girl’s body found in Connecticut in 1976. A detective working the case has traced Susie’s keystone charm back to Len’s investigation. Len insists that Susie’s file is dead, but volunteers George Harvey’s name and some information about Susie. The investigator tells Fenerman that the body turned up in Connecticut still has teeth, and asks for Susie’s dental records. He agrees to send them over, but plans to wait until he is certain of anything, either way, to get in touch with Jack Salmon.
As Len begins to realize that the web of Harvey’s violence spreads larger than he ever could have imagined, he longs both for closure on behalf of Susie and all the Salmons and for an end to the compounding realization that he let a prolific and cruel killer of women slip through his fingers.
Hal Heckler has, for eight years, been asking his network of biker friends for help in tracking down George Harvey. One night, a man in the Hell’s Angels biker gang named Ralph Cichetti confesses to Hal that he believes his mother was murdered by a man she rented a room to. The man hadn’t gone by George Harvey, but Ralph tells Hal that the renter had built dollhouses. Hal places a call to Len Fenerman.
Many years have passed since Susie’s death, but those closest to her still crave justice on her behalf. Hal Heckler has been particularly determined to try and unearth whatever he can, and at last, a viable lead that could connect Harvey to Susie’s murder—missing though he is—comes through.
Susie watches as the years go by. The trees in her yard grow taller, and when sitting in her gazebo, she pretends she is on Earth, sitting on a tall branch in her own yard, or on a fire escape with Ruth, in the library with Ray, at the vineyard with her mother, or with her father in his den. Susie marvels at how her death has influenced the people she loved on Earth. She hoards the quiet moment she observes just as she hoarded her photographs back on Earth.
It is difficult for Susie to watch everyone she has loved attempt to move on from her. Still, she realizes with a kind of satisfaction that her loss has had a far greater impact than she—or any of her loved ones—could have realized. Susie squirrels these images and feelings away, seeing them as precious gems.
One night, at Evensong up in heaven, Susie sees Holiday racing through her heaven. She waits for Holiday to sniff her out, and is overjoyed when at last he comes bounding toward her.
Susie is at last, after years and years of clinging to “snapshots,” given a tangible piece of her life on Earth up in heaven.