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Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child

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Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Velazquez Laura Cumming shares the riveting story of her mother’s mysterious kidnapping as a toddler in a small English coastal village—and how that event reverberated through her own family and her art for decades. In the fall of 1929, when Laura Cumming’s mother was three years old, she was kidnapped from a Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Velazquez Laura Cumming shares the riveting story of her mother’s mysterious kidnapping as a toddler in a small English coastal village—and how that event reverberated through her own family and her art for decades. In the fall of 1929, when Laura Cumming’s mother was three years old, she was kidnapped from a beach on the Lincolnshire coast of England. There were no screams when she was taken, suggesting the culprit was someone familiar to her, and when she turned up again in a nearby village several days later, she was found in perfect health and happiness. No one was ever accused of a crime. The incident quickly faded from her memory, and her parents never discussed it. To the contrary, they deliberately hid it from her, and she did not learn of it for half a century. This was not the only secret her parents kept from her. For many years, while raising her in draconian isolation and protectiveness, they also hid the fact that she’d been adopted, and that shortly after the kidnapping, her name was changed from Grace to Betty. In Five Days Gone, Laura Cumming brilliantly unspools the tale of her mother’s life and unravels the multiple mysteries at its core. Using photographs from the time, historical documents, and works of art, Cumming investigates this case of stolen identity with the toolset of a detective and the unique intimacy of a daughter trying to understand her family’s past and its legacies. Compulsive, vivid, and profoundly touching, Five Days Gone is a masterful blend of memoir and history, an extraordinary personal narrative unlike any other.


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Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Velazquez Laura Cumming shares the riveting story of her mother’s mysterious kidnapping as a toddler in a small English coastal village—and how that event reverberated through her own family and her art for decades. In the fall of 1929, when Laura Cumming’s mother was three years old, she was kidnapped from a Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Velazquez Laura Cumming shares the riveting story of her mother’s mysterious kidnapping as a toddler in a small English coastal village—and how that event reverberated through her own family and her art for decades. In the fall of 1929, when Laura Cumming’s mother was three years old, she was kidnapped from a beach on the Lincolnshire coast of England. There were no screams when she was taken, suggesting the culprit was someone familiar to her, and when she turned up again in a nearby village several days later, she was found in perfect health and happiness. No one was ever accused of a crime. The incident quickly faded from her memory, and her parents never discussed it. To the contrary, they deliberately hid it from her, and she did not learn of it for half a century. This was not the only secret her parents kept from her. For many years, while raising her in draconian isolation and protectiveness, they also hid the fact that she’d been adopted, and that shortly after the kidnapping, her name was changed from Grace to Betty. In Five Days Gone, Laura Cumming brilliantly unspools the tale of her mother’s life and unravels the multiple mysteries at its core. Using photographs from the time, historical documents, and works of art, Cumming investigates this case of stolen identity with the toolset of a detective and the unique intimacy of a daughter trying to understand her family’s past and its legacies. Compulsive, vivid, and profoundly touching, Five Days Gone is a masterful blend of memoir and history, an extraordinary personal narrative unlike any other.

30 review for Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child

  1. 4 out of 5

    Beata

    Laura Cumming found the inspiration to write this memoir in a story of a 3-year-old girl who was abducted in 1929 from a beach, and was found safe and sound after five days. This story had a happy end, even a double one, as the little girl had no memories of the event as she grew older. This all sounds like a plot of a good thriller, however, it is even better than that, since the little girl was Ms Cumming’s mother. After years of silence, secrets and allusions, Laura Cumming decided to Laura Cumming found the inspiration to write this memoir in a story of a 3-year-old girl who was abducted in 1929 from a beach, and was found safe and sound after five days. This story had a happy end, even a double one, as the little girl had no memories of the event as she grew older. This all sounds like a plot of a good thriller, however, it is even better than that, since the little girl was Ms Cumming’s mother. After years of silence, secrets and allusions, Laura Cumming decided to investigate what really had happened on the beach in Chapel, a small sea-side village, and this was the beginning of unravelling incredibly complicated family history. The story in which voices from the past and pictures gradually complete the puzzle that consists of hundreds of pieces. I seldom turn to memoirs, but I am happy to have read this one, and a thank-you to the Authoress for all emotions this book stirred in me. I listened to an audiobook, the narrator is Ms Cumming herself, and I truly enjoyed listening to her steady, not-that-hasty reading

  2. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    3.5 A mother and daughter search for answers in this unusual memoir. Family, art and the quest for identity are major themes as a set of photographs are the impetus that leads the daughter to try to track down the mystery of her mother's life. A family story with a mystery at the heart as her mother was taken when she was three and returned a few days later. Who took her and why was she returned? Following the clues in the pictures, she finds out her mother, now called Betty, was once called 3.5 A mother and daughter search for answers in this unusual memoir. Family, art and the quest for identity are major themes as a set of photographs are the impetus that leads the daughter to try to track down the mystery of her mother's life. A family story with a mystery at the heart as her mother was taken when she was three and returned a few days later. Who took her and why was she returned? Following the clues in the pictures, she finds out her mother, now called Betty, was once called Grace. So who was she really? This is a beautifully written but slowly unraveling story. The tone is wistful, almost haunting as information is discovered and new clues are revealed. Art is discussed, photographs are included, all leading to provide a picture of her mothers life. Although she knew her grandmother Vera, her grandfather was long dead. These were the people said to be her mother's, parents, the people whose past she learns much about and that helps lead to answers. At time I got impatient with the slowness of the story, but then something interesting will be discovered, at just the right moment. Plus the outstanding prose kept me reading. The ending was simple, but just perfect and heartening. "All around us our stories that cannot be squared or circled or turned into something so easily defined. Death, after all , comes to interrupt any narrative that looks as if it might have the audacity to try and complete itself." "Words and images . In life as in art we do not always see what is going on at the edges, or even the foreground, do not notice what seems irrelevant or superfluous to our needs and theories. Perception is guided by our own priorities." ARC from Edelweiss.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Valerity (Val)

    She started out her life as Grace until she was adopted before age 3, then she was Betty. A name she never liked. Later she called herself Elizabeth. An older couple adopted her at age 3, George and Veda Elston. She grew to dislike George, who was controlling and didn’t want her mingling with others in the tiny village. She wasn’t allowed to go out and play with any of the local kids. This story is about the discovery of her strange disappearance that happened when she was about 3, but she wasn’ She started out her life as Grace until she was adopted before age 3, then she was Betty. A name she never liked. Later she called herself Elizabeth. An older couple adopted her at age 3, George and Veda Elston. She grew to dislike George, who was controlling and didn’t want her mingling with others in the tiny village. She wasn’t allowed to go out and play with any of the local kids. This story is about the discovery of her strange disappearance that happened when she was about 3, but she wasn’t aware of until she was in her 50’s, that’s shared with and written about by her daughter. Who took her and why? And for what reason was she returned days later…? Read to find out. Advance electronic review copy was provided by NetGalley, author Laura Cumming, and the publisher. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4. Also on my WordPress blog: https://wordpress.com/post/bookblog20...

  4. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This book has its origins and setting in Chapel St Leonards, a village on the Lincolnshire coast. Being a Lincolnshire lad I therefore had to read this. Laura Cummings’s mother was brought up there and Cummings has set out to piece together her mother’s upbringing. Her mother was born in 1926, is still living and was adopted at the age of three. It was not until many years later and Cummings and her mother discovered that in 1929 three year old Betty was kidnapped from Chapel Sands and was not This book has its origins and setting in Chapel St Leonards, a village on the Lincolnshire coast. Being a Lincolnshire lad I therefore had to read this. Laura Cummings’s mother was brought up there and Cummings has set out to piece together her mother’s upbringing. Her mother was born in 1926, is still living and was adopted at the age of three. It was not until many years later and Cummings and her mother discovered that in 1929 three year old Betty was kidnapped from Chapel Sands and was not found for five days: dressed in entirely different clothes and unharmed. She has no recollection of the event. Cummings in this account pieces together the mystery of her mother’s upbringing from some clues, some accounts from the descendants of those involved and an assortment of photographs. Cummings is an art historian and manages to get more from photographs than most of us would be able to: she takes objects and gives them meaning and pieces together life in an English village in the 1930s. She also examines Betty’s adoptive parents, George and Veda, already in their 40s, trying to isolate Betty from everyone around them and stop her mixing with others. For there are secrets in the village and in the neighbouring village of Hogsthorpe. There is a fine array of local characters and the narrative also stretches to the other side of the globe. Cummings traces Betty’s real mother and father (with a few real twists), the reasons for the kidnapping, Betty’s original name (Grace) and much more. Veda and George are examined closely: Veda is old enough to remember seeing Tennyson striding along Chapel Sands when she was a girl and Tennyson’s poetry crops up periodically. Cummings’s mother writes what she knows to help in her daughter’s quest (which takes many years to complete): “Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.” The memoir reflects the depth and complexity of family and village life and seeks to explain. Cummings, in an interview reflects on the process: “I had her memoir, I had my writings over many years about her, who I love very dearly, and I had many thoughts about this story. And I told the story, a specific aspect of the story, which is the baker’s van, which arrives from the windmill at Hogsthorpe and never stops at her house. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and I saw the thing to do, with my mother’s blessing. I went to Chapel St Leonards. I took a room in a farm nearby and I spent a long time on the beach. Every day I’d go to the beach and I’d think about this scene. I’d go up to the Beacon and I went to the house where my mother lived and I’d have a drink in the Vine. I went round and round. I did the walk from Chapel to Mablethorpe. I did the walk from Chapel to Skegness and I thought about this period in time. And local historians in and around Chapel have done a wonderful job of publishing a lot of beautifully written local history. In Skegness Library you can look up old copies of the Skegness Times. It was very evocative. The book came into the form it’s in simply from being in the landscape in Lincolnshire. I’d stand on those sands and she was there, my grandfather was there, the Vikings were there. The compression of time was a great advantage for me.” I really enjoyed the writing and the unravelling of the background to the tale; it helped a little having some awareness of the geography. It illustrates well the complexity of families: “Everyone has a mother, everyone has an uncle who wasn’t really their uncle, or whose sister was in fact their mother, or whose grandparents aren’t their grandparents. It’s completely common. All family photo albums are full of things we don’t notice and that’s the campaign of the book: look more closely. There’s always a figure in the background or someone who is not there. Who’s taken the photograph?” This was a pleasure to read, capturing a lost time without sentimentality or nostalgia.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ingrid

    The author painted a beautiful picture of her mother's life and times. As I pictured this little girl I wish I could have taken her in my arms, she had such a hard life. While reading I realised was not so very different from my own mother's life story. It also occurred to me that preserving photos and other material from grandparents, great grandparents does help to find out how they lived. I know so little in that respect.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters. On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters. On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, but her attention wandered, she looked away, and when she looked back the child had vanished. Her father, George, a travelling salesman, was called home; the police were summoned; but a few days later, the little girl was found safe and well in a nearby village, completely unharmed but dressed in a brand new set of clothes. She was restored to her parents, her memory of what had happened would fade away, and her life would go on. It was a strange, and often unhappy, life for young Betty. Her parents kept her close, barely letting her mix with other children, and they held themselves apart from their neighbours, only keeping in touch with a few old friends. You might think that they were being over- protective after what had happened; but if that was the case why did there daughter feel no warmth from them, and why did she hear no words of love and care, not even one single word of reassurance after a strange encounter led her her father to tell her that she had been adopted? Betty eventually escapes from the confines of her life, to art college in the distant city of Edinburgh; where she will build a new life, as an artist, as a wife, and as mother. Laura Cumming is Betty Elson’s daughter, and as she grew up she came to realise that her mother never spoke about her own childhood. When Elizabeth (who modified her name, as she had always hated being called Betty) asked what she would most like for her 21st birthday, Laura answered the tale of her mother’s early life. The mother wrote: Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling. And the daughter noted: This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world. That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did. I was captivated by her voice, which was intelligent, warm and compassionate. I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator. The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time. The arc of the story is relatively simple, but this is not a book to read just to learn the story, it is a book to read to appreciate all of the things that are threaded through that story. There is very real social history; there is a willingness to learn and to understand; and there is exactly the right amount of restraint – lives and families and communities are illuminated but there is no intrusion and no assumption about things that could not be known. There is a wonderful appreciation of the depth and complexity of family love; and it the loveliest of tributes from a daughter to a mother. I’m trying not to say too much, because I was told more that I wanted to know about this book before I started to read. And so I will simply finish by saying that this book is beautiful, moving and profound.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This is a moving memoir, by Laura Cumming, about her mother’s early life. Her mother, Elizabeth, was known as Betty as a child, but, before that, she was Grace. She lived in a seaside village, Chapel St Leonards, where, one day in 1929, she was abducted from the beach. One moment she played on the sand, with her adopted mother, Veda, the next she was snatched away and was missing for some days. In this book, Laura Cumming attempts to uncover the mystery of this mysterious event in her mother’s This is a moving memoir, by Laura Cumming, about her mother’s early life. Her mother, Elizabeth, was known as Betty as a child, but, before that, she was Grace. She lived in a seaside village, Chapel St Leonards, where, one day in 1929, she was abducted from the beach. One moment she played on the sand, with her adopted mother, Veda, the next she was snatched away and was missing for some days. In this book, Laura Cumming attempts to uncover the mystery of this mysterious event in her mother’s early life, as well as unearthing her true heritage. What is also clear is that this is not just a tale of those immediately involved, but of the community. As so often happens, people living in the village – who knew Betty – conspired to keep the secret of her birth; even from her. I found this an extremely sad read at times, but Laura’s love for her mother is what really makes the memoir work, and puts her at the centre of her family, as she was once the centre of a mystery.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Olive

    I talk about this book in my video for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction 2019 Shortlist: https://youtu.be/mEmyvi4Y8RQ

  9. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    From BBC radio 4 - Book of the week: In her new book, the art critic Laura Cumming unravels the mystery of her mother's disappearance one day in late 1929. Five days went by before she was found unharmed, but she remembered nothing of these events and the silence about what happened remained for fifty years when the circumstances of her kidnap came to light. Laura finds clues in everyday objects and crucially the family photo album, and her search for the truth uncovers a series of secrets, From BBC radio 4 - Book of the week: In her new book, the art critic Laura Cumming unravels the mystery of her mother's disappearance one day in late 1929. Five days went by before she was found unharmed, but she remembered nothing of these events and the silence about what happened remained for fifty years when the circumstances of her kidnap came to light. Laura finds clues in everyday objects and crucially the family photo album, and her search for the truth uncovers a series of secrets, betrayals and heartache. Read by Laura Cumming and Susan Jameson. Abridged by Katrin Williams Produced by Elizabeth Allard https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000...

  10. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    I heard about this book on NPR, and it sounded so compelling that I immediately acquired a copy. There is too much book for the story. I almost immediately guessed the kernel of the story, and although the NPR piece had set me up for a big surprise at the end, none came--what I had already guessed was the whole surprise. The writing is overwrought, with detail that becomes truly excruciating as well as repetitive. I can see where writing this was an act of love on the part of the author for her I heard about this book on NPR, and it sounded so compelling that I immediately acquired a copy. There is too much book for the story. I almost immediately guessed the kernel of the story, and although the NPR piece had set me up for a big surprise at the end, none came--what I had already guessed was the whole surprise. The writing is overwrought, with detail that becomes truly excruciating as well as repetitive. I can see where writing this was an act of love on the part of the author for her mother, but not being her mother, I was less impressed.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Howdle

    Sometimes blurbs do books a disservice and that fact applies here. The marketting of On Chapel Sands plays into our lurid imaginations: a child is kidnapped and goes missing for days... child abuse, crime, terror? This appears to be the source of frustration felt by some Goodreads reviewers. And the fact that some think it is a novel and judge it incorrectly. There is nothing sensational about On Chapel Sands. Quite the opposite-- it is filled with disturbing ripples, rather like Anita Brookner Sometimes blurbs do books a disservice and that fact applies here. The marketting of On Chapel Sands plays into our lurid imaginations: a child is kidnapped and goes missing for days... child abuse, crime, terror? This appears to be the source of frustration felt by some Goodreads reviewers. And the fact that some think it is a novel and judge it incorrectly. There is nothing sensational about On Chapel Sands. Quite the opposite-- it is filled with disturbing ripples, rather like Anita Brookner or Penelope Fitzgerald. In this biography of her mother, Laura Cummins investigates a simple fact: why were there no pictures of her mother before three years old? Why was she known as Grace then Betty? Why was her mysterious disappearance from the beach concealed from her? The result is a slow and fascinating unravelling of a life. Cummins has an aesthetic background (like her mother). Consequently, this is rather more than just a biography. It is a study of how a biographer sees and interprets through pictures, real pictures, paintings and photographs, and through picture shaped from life by the imagination. Cummins is a modest and illuminating writer and this results in a book that is really about human relationship at its most sensitive: the bond between mother and daughter. In a way, psychological archaeology-- peeling the past back layer by layer until another world is revealed. On Chapel Sands is also an investigation of a lost rural landscape, one that Cummins approaches without nostalgia and sentimentality. This is a fine and slowly revelatory book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    One for readers of The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal) and Rosie (Rose Tremain): a family memoir whose tone of emotional detachment is in keeping with the mores of the time it writes about. Cumming’s mother, Betty, was raised by adoptive parents, George and Veda Elston. But in 1929 something strange happened: three-year-old Betty was kidnapped from a beach in Lincolnshire and found five days later. Even stranger: at that time she was known as Grace. Cumming and her mother only learned the One for readers of The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal) and Rosie (Rose Tremain): a family memoir whose tone of emotional detachment is in keeping with the mores of the time it writes about. Cumming’s mother, Betty, was raised by adoptive parents, George and Veda Elston. But in 1929 something strange happened: three-year-old Betty was kidnapped from a beach in Lincolnshire and found five days later. Even stranger: at that time she was known as Grace. Cumming and her mother only learned the truth of her parentage and upbringing in the 1980s: (view spoiler)[George was her biological father, but her mother was Hilda Blanchard, a young woman from a local mill-owning and baking family. She was forced to sign a contract permanently giving Grace to George and his wife, and moved to Australia, where she bore two more children but always kept a photograph of Grace beside her bed. It seems George did genuinely love Hilda: he continued to send her photos of their daughter, all the way to Australia. (hide spoiler)] In this book, which incorporates fragments of a brief memoir her mother wrote in her sixties, Cumming constructs her family’s history slowly, often looking to photographs for the surprising facts they reveal about family members and their interactions. “Photography gives us memories we hardly knew we had. … Through photographs, we have relationships with people unknown.” She ponders how much of an effect her mother’s early years had on her, and struggles to understand and forgive George. The author is an art historian, and at times her discussion of paintings borders on the irrelevant; more fitting is when she describes Lincolnshire scenes as if they were Constable or Rembrandt landscapes, or likens a photo George took of Veda to a Vermeer. A quiet and gently rewarding book, but not one that will stay with me. Favorite lines: “Memories calcify over the years: everything grows more extreme – the brightness incandescent, the darkness infinitely worse.” “The lives of our parents before we were born are surely the first great mystery.” “Here is the dilemma for the adopted child: how to love and respect both mothers, the one unknown as well as the one who is here every day.” “although he is my grandfather, and I have his blood, he is like all long-distant ancestors to me – these people of the past who elude us, no matter how hard we try to drag them back out of time’s tide. A photograph and an anecdote or two; if we are lucky, some writing or a headstone.”

  13. 5 out of 5

    Navi

    Laura Cumming is my new favourite nonfiction author. I read The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece last year and was completely blown away by it. This is why I was so excited to read Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. This book is a true account of Cumming's mother's five day disappearance from a beach when she was a young child and the aftershocks that resulted from Laura Cumming is my new favourite nonfiction author. I read The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece last year and was completely blown away by it. This is why I was so excited to read Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. This book is a true account of Cumming's mother's five day disappearance from a beach when she was a young child and the aftershocks that resulted from that event. I don’t want to say too much because I think the real beauty of this book is how Cummings slowly unveils everything to the reader. She has the power to grip your attention from the first page to the last and is great at filling in the details even when she does not have the complete historical information. One of the things I loved about this book is how Cumming uses photographs in her text and is able to bring them to life with her acute observation and creative flourish. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I highly recommend it to everyone. I cannot wait to read whatever she comes out with next!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Robert Sheard

    This one suffers from too much, and misleading, marketing hype. There's not much of a mystery, since everyone in Chapel apparently knew the truth except the author's mother. But I think a bigger problem is that the author, by her own admission, really only has a handful of photos and some very incomplete and biased childhood stories, but then speculates (often pretty wildly) about what her grandfather was actually like. This isn't a true crime book. It isn't a mystery. It's a couple hundred This one suffers from too much, and misleading, marketing hype. There's not much of a mystery, since everyone in Chapel apparently knew the truth except the author's mother. But I think a bigger problem is that the author, by her own admission, really only has a handful of photos and some very incomplete and biased childhood stories, but then speculates (often pretty wildly) about what her grandfather was actually like. This isn't a true crime book. It isn't a mystery. It's a couple hundred pages of grand conjecture, with some art history thrown in for no apparent reason other than that the author is an art critic.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mairi Byatt

    I have been so moved by this stunning novel, also learnt so much about art, and given me an appreciation I have never known before. I was actually at school with Laura for 12 years and always liked her but never really got to know her - my loss! I could have known one of the most emotive caring and beautiful people on the planet! Please, please read this book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sonya

    An elegantly written meditation on family, identity, secrets, memory and imagery.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robert Blumenthal

    I thought this was going to be more of a memoir. It really isn't. It is more of a tribute to a mother and her mysterious past. And it is very compelling (eventually) and moving. Laura Cumming's mother, Betty, was kidnapped from a beach when she was three years old, later to be found and returned to her adopted parents five days later. There is the mystery of who took her, how she was taken from a very open and barren beach, and why she was returned. And why was she adopted at the age of three to I thought this was going to be more of a memoir. It really isn't. It is more of a tribute to a mother and her mysterious past. And it is very compelling (eventually) and moving. Laura Cumming's mother, Betty, was kidnapped from a beach when she was three years old, later to be found and returned to her adopted parents five days later. There is the mystery of who took her, how she was taken from a very open and barren beach, and why she was returned. And why was she adopted at the age of three to a couple twice her mother's age and what were the circumstances of her birth. Also why was her name changed from Grace to Betty. This is the central mystery explored by the author, and most of the questions are answered, though some with very educated guesses. The book doesn't advance the narrative so much at the beginning, with lots of descriptions of the areas of Lincolnshire in England and the characters in Laura and her mother's lives. Once the book really starts exploring the mystery of Betty's birth it becomes much more compelling. An encounter on a bus, several found photographs, a finding of some important individuals are the beginnings of Laura being able to piece together her mother's life. There was great secrecy established about Betty's birth and adoption, and the secrets were very well kept. Betty was forced to live a very cloistered, protected life, allusions to being in a prison were presented several times throughout the book. And yet she came out of all this fine, was able to provide a wonderful and loving relationship to her children, and became a loving grandmother. Laura Cumming obviously has a tremendous amount of affection for her mother, and this comes through significantly in this book. There are photographs of people and paintings throughout the book which serve as a reference to the details emerging which are very well used by the author. It's a beautifully written account, and though a bit overly descriptive at first, becomes a compelling narrative.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Maura Heaphy Dutton

    A fascinating family memoir, intensely moving in the way it captures a lost past. Laura Cummings, as a late-life gift to her beloved mother, has drawn together the threads of the story of her mother's birth and up-bringing, a story so bizarre and emotionally convoluted that it could easily pass as the outline of a lost novel by Thomas Hardy. Cummings uses one episode from her mother's infancy as the hook to draw her readers in: when Betty was three years old, she was "kidnapped" out from under A fascinating family memoir, intensely moving in the way it captures a lost past. Laura Cummings, as a late-life gift to her beloved mother, has drawn together the threads of the story of her mother's birth and up-bringing, a story so bizarre and emotionally convoluted that it could easily pass as the outline of a lost novel by Thomas Hardy. Cummings uses one episode from her mother's infancy as the hook to draw her readers in: when Betty was three years old, she was "kidnapped" out from under her mother's eyes, as she played on the beach outside their home, the Chapel Sands of the title. I use the quotation marks advisedly, as the snatching of the child turns out to be a tipping point in a complicated family saga. No charges were pressed, and no one was prosecuted -- although there were serious consequences for the kidnappers, and for "Betty." Who, technically should also be bracketed in quotation marks as, until a few days before the kidnapping, she had been called Grace, she had lived with a different family, and had a different life laid out for her. I defy you to read that, and not want to rush out and grab this book in your hot little hands, immediately. The whole story is a corker, and I won't spoil it for you by revealing any more -- Cummings has done an amazing job of family history research, detective work, reconstruction of time past, and sheer footwork, and you deserve to discover it just as she lays it out. But just to give you an idea of what she was up against, as she embarked on her research-- her mother (now no longer Grace or Betty, but Elizabeth) had no memory of the kidnapping, and knew nothing about it until she was in her 50s. Just one of the pattern of secrets and lies that surrounded this otherwise ordinary little girl. This book is exceptional for the way that it reconstructs the lost world of Betty's childhood. To quote another Edwardian author, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." And for Betty's past, her daughter has to drawn the maps, write the guide books, and devise the translations of helpful phrases. And she does this so skilfully that you can feel the stale atmosphere of the tiny, over-furnished rooms, smell the boiled cabbage that accompanied bland, unimaginative meals, and feel the hairs on the back of your neck prickle as you are observed by people who know more about you than you do yourself. As a journalist who specializes in art history and criticism, it's not surprising that Cummings makes skilful use of images: both family photographs, which are revealed to be fraught with hidden meanings and emotional undercurrents, and even classic paintings, which she uses to illustrate some of her points about family relationships, secrets and story-telling. The only flaw -- the reason that it's 4-stars instead of 5 -- is that, for me, it can be overwritten. Cummings is obviously very taken with the Hardyesque nature of her story, and in that spirit, the whole thing is imbued with a thick layer of poetry (aka, sometimes, and IMHO, as "cliche" ...). No object is allowed to get away without some deeper meeting, no vista doesn't lend some deeper insight into the very soul of the viewer. And every character, however minor, is on the lam from The Mayor of Casterbridge. To borrow an image from art, Cumming's tale of her mother's strange childhood is powerful enough that she really didn't need the veneer. But that's a flaw that is easily forgiven -- this is highly recommended.

  19. 4 out of 5

    JacquiWine

    I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed. In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed. In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own. The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)? To read the rest of my review, please visit: https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2019...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    I really tried, but this book meanders all over the place. I only got to page 75 and gave it up.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sherrie

    Written well, but very slow to develop and much too long. The actual story of the kidnap of the author's mother doesn't really need a book this long and the chapter where all is revealed is almost at the end.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Penny

    Enjoyed reading this and it's just about a 4 star book, but the more I think about it the more I'm not sure there's enough of a story here to warrant a full book. The sense of place is beautifully drawn - I know the area of Lincolnshire described. However, there's an awful lot or repetition and padding. The padding is done by what I can only describe as random art criticism, and whilst it is interesting it isn't really relevant. So, no surprises to find out that Cumming is an art critic! I also Enjoyed reading this and it's just about a 4 star book, but the more I think about it the more I'm not sure there's enough of a story here to warrant a full book. The sense of place is beautifully drawn - I know the area of Lincolnshire described. However, there's an awful lot or repetition and padding. The padding is done by what I can only describe as random art criticism, and whilst it is interesting it isn't really relevant. So, no surprises to find out that Cumming is an art critic! I also failed to see why Cumming felt so strongly about things that happened so long ago to her family. Everyone else seemed to have moved on but her obsession with unpicking the past and searching for 'answers' borders on unhealthy and unhelpful. And many of the book's illustrations (often reproductions of photos) were very poor.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Clancy

    The story sounded more interesting when I heard the author interviewed on NPR. Unfortunately, the book rambled with endless and tedious art history tangents that did not move the story along at all. Towards the end, it was just a slog to get through it in the hopes that the resolution would be compelling. It was not. If you're an art history buff, you might really enjoy this book. The prose was beautiful at times and was generally quiet. But, I would recommend being in the mood for a lot of The story sounded more interesting when I heard the author interviewed on NPR. Unfortunately, the book rambled with endless and tedious art history tangents that did not move the story along at all. Towards the end, it was just a slog to get through it in the hopes that the resolution would be compelling. It was not. If you're an art history buff, you might really enjoy this book. The prose was beautiful at times and was generally quiet. But, I would recommend being in the mood for a lot of stillness. And a near stream-of-consciousness experience.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    I can't grade this down too much for not being what I expected, but it definitely wasn't. From the description and the title, it seems as if it will be a delving into the mystery of Cumming's mother's disappearance as a child. And it is...but it also isn't. It's a beautifully written book, a deep look into life in the early 20th century. The mystery does get solved, but not in a way that anyone would have guessed at the time. It involves a lot of secret keeping from Laura's mother Elizabeth I can't grade this down too much for not being what I expected, but it definitely wasn't. From the description and the title, it seems as if it will be a delving into the mystery of Cumming's mother's disappearance as a child. And it is...but it also isn't. It's a beautifully written book, a deep look into life in the early 20th century. The mystery does get solved, but not in a way that anyone would have guessed at the time. It involves a lot of secret keeping from Laura's mother Elizabeth (Betty/Grace), because so many people knew about the situation that led up to the kidnapping and everything that happened afterward. It's a shame that her parents kept these things from her. Cumming is a skillful writer, she paints pictures with words that help the reader to envision what life must have been like for Betty. It also looks at how our memories are shaped--via photographs, stories people have told us, and what is withheld. I overall liked this book, but I was in the mood to read one thing and got another because I didn't really know what I was getting into. Definitely worth reading for the subtle mystery and look back into a past with its own rules, stereotypes, and secrets. I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book, all opinions are my own.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Masini

    I was disappointed in this book. I read it on my husband's recommendation as he'd heard it profiled on NPR. Basically the author prolonged the true story of her mother's kidnapping as a child to make a book out of what could have been a simple news story. The book seems to consist of a greeat deal of guessing about what may have happened as her mother was a 3 year old at the time and never had any memory of the events.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kerfe

    I reserved this book at the library after reading a review. It is not really the "mystery" the review made it out to be--it's obvious early on that the author's mother is not the adopted child of strangers, but the child of her father and his lover. The mystery is how her mother could have reached adulthood totally ignorant of both that fact and the many friend and relatives of her birth mother that intersected with her life on a day-to-day basis. Everyone knew the real story but her. Even in old I reserved this book at the library after reading a review. It is not really the "mystery" the review made it out to be--it's obvious early on that the author's mother is not the adopted child of strangers, but the child of her father and his lover. The mystery is how her mother could have reached adulthood totally ignorant of both that fact and the many friend and relatives of her birth mother that intersected with her life on a day-to-day basis. Everyone knew the real story but her. Even in old age, when parts of the truth came to be known to Betty/Grace and her children, almost no one directly involved would talk to them about it. This is not an unusual family situation--everyone thinks their own family secrets are unique and need to be kept hidden, but the unsullied and straightforward life seems the more unusual to me. I myself have a great uncle my grandmother and her 2 sisters never mentioned. Did my father know? I only found out when doing family research on ancestry.com. He served with my grandfather in WWI, which must be how my grandparents met. But why was he written out of their lives? I'll never know because anyone with possible knowledge of it is dead. Laura Cumming had better luck when seeking to put together some picture of her previously unknown relatives. It's an interesting story--but even with all she was able to discover, there is still a leap of imagination required to round out the characters and motivations of all these people both she and her mother never met. Photos, descriptions, words--inferences can be made. But even in our relationships with the people closest to us, there is always an element of mystery and surprise. Do we even know all the hows and whys of ourselves?

  27. 5 out of 5

    Janet Burns

    Enjoying the mystery of Betty in this book but it has been spoilt by the episode where the Grammar school girl, born in 1929, was able to have a polio vaccination, whereas I was born in 1941 and was among the first tranche of teenagers to be given the new vaccine in 1955. An irritation getting this information which can’t be true.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mary Arkless

    Borrowed from the library. As I have a cold and was feeling rather sorry for myself, I read the book in one day. This is a writing style that captures me and doesn't want to let me go. Also, the author was good at hinting at further unravelling of the mystery, so that I wanted to carry on and see what happened next. The author's mother had lived a very claustrophobic childhood. She was never allowed to go anywhere alone. For the most part, she wasn't allowed to go anywhere. When this is your norm, Borrowed from the library. As I have a cold and was feeling rather sorry for myself, I read the book in one day. This is a writing style that captures me and doesn't want to let me go. Also, the author was good at hinting at further unravelling of the mystery, so that I wanted to carry on and see what happened next. The author's mother had lived a very claustrophobic childhood. She was never allowed to go anywhere alone. For the most part, she wasn't allowed to go anywhere. When this is your norm, and you've known nothing else, it takes time to realize that other people don't live like that. The thing was, there were many secrets about the mother and her heritage, which everyone else in the villages around seems to have known, but she didn't until decades later. Even once her father, and later her mother, had died, local people did not want to tell her the secrets. Slowly, slowly over decades they were teased out, some by the mother, some by the author and her brother. Pictures play a part in telling this story and they are included in the book. Although the author describes them, they are actually difficult to see. Despite this being a hardback, the pictures are reproduced in poor quality black and white. The photos from the mother's childhood probably couldn't be any different, as they were taken in the 1920s and 1930s, but there are also reproductions of famous paintings. For example, A Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus by Bruegel is discussed and alluded to, but the reproduction in the book is small, black and white, grainy, so that you can not see any of the detail the author mentions. I could overlook this in a mass production paperback, but not in a first release hardback.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Börkur Sigurbjörnsson

    The art critic tells the story of her mother almost as if it were a painting. First, the plot is sketched, roughly. Then the details are added little by little, moving back and forth over different parts of the canvas. From time to time, parts of the plot are re-worked as needed by the unfolding of time. I found it an interesting approach to narration.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Linden

    The true story of the kidnapping of a little girl in 1929 and the mystery surrounding it.

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