Saturday, April 18, 2020

NetGalley ARC | The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic that Shook Depression-Era America

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I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I would have given this five stars if there were not so many damned exclamation points.

Naturally when one thinks of kidnappings in the 1930s, the first case that almost always comes to mind is that of Charles Lindbergh's twenty-month- old son, Charles Jr. That case is discussed extensively throughout the book, while other less high-profile cases are also given equal footing.

One thing I really appreciated about this book is that it was more or less chronological, and did not tell each kidnapping story individually. As the author moved through the decade when his epidemic was at an all-time high, we see which cases overlapped, and sometimes had to wait several sections for any kind of resolution. I personally liked this, as it was as realistic as one can get without having actually lived through it.

There is such a blend of themes here and they are woven together well. The Great Depression is in full swing and families are struggling to simply survive. Prohibition was coming to an end, so those who made their living that way were seeing income dry up as quickly as the country was supposed to when the law went into effect in 1920. On top of that the likes of Dillinger, the Barkers, and so many others were terrorizing the country, sometimes opposed by police and sometimes assisted. The constant message though, was one of desperation and despair that drove so many to attempt or carry out these crimes.

While it would be impossible to recount every single case, there are enough discussed here to really give the reader a feel for what it felt like to live through such a time. Most of the time the victims or survivors were held for ransom. Some were lucky enough to see their families again, though they were scarred for life from the experience. Others were not, and only in death were reunited with loved ones.

I found it especially difficult to read about the children who were kidnapped for far more nefarious reasons than ransom. The story of Grace Budd was absolutely heartbreaking and I feel so terribly for her parents and siblings. It is a horrific case and one I would rather not dwell on much here or I will probably start crying again, just thinking of the anguish her parents felt and the blame they put on themselves for believing the lies they were told and allowing their beloved daughter to go to the birthday party for a man's niece, the man whom they had only recently met.

As one would expect, we see ol' Hoover trying to insert himself into any investigation he could. Even when, and maybe especially because, his agency often came under fire for being incompetent and out of control. He wanted to be seen at apprehensions and discoveries in order to portray himself as the one who was cleverly solving these crimes and in full control, that the newspaper reports were wrong.

I found it especially interesting to read of how many families contacted police to inform them of the kidnappings, but also asked they stand down while the family also contacted those who might, shall we say, have connection to the world in which the kidnappers moved in. More than one case detailed in this book was solved this way and it should not have surprised me. After all, many wealthy families had some underworld contacts for a variety of reasons, and sometimes those contacts were able to make far more progress than law enforcement. One must also not overlook the corruption that permeated some police forces, so many were right to not trust those supposedly sworn to protect them.

The plethora of exclamation points aside, the author does a fantastic job transporting the reader back to this turbulent period where no one was truly safe from the epidemic, whether rich or poor - it merely depended upon the perp's purpose for the kidnapping. Most were for ransom, and more were returned to their families than not - here, at least. I can't speak for the statistics overall, but from the cases presented in the book only.

Any reader interested in this period will find value in this book. I hesitate to use the word 'enjoy' because how does one enjoy a story about kidnapping and murder. I think, however, everyone gets the point. Highly recommended.


  1. This sounds incredibly interesting. I think I would like the way this book was laid out as well. I couldn't imagine what these people went through.

    1. It is probably my favorite so far of my recent NetGalley haul. So much I thought i knew about the 30s but nope, here's a ton more information!

  2. Ugh!!! I am giving you more exclamation points, just to tease you. An upsetting topic but no wonder my mom, who grew up in those years, was always, like a million times, warning me never to talk to or get in a car with someone I didn't know. I walked to school every day, usually alone, with only my violin case as a weapon.

    1. Oh yes, I can definitely see why she was so worried about you. It's like with the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping in Minnesota in 1989. I was 6 and my life was fundamentally different after his abduction, for a long time. No more running down the block, even into the cul de sac, to my best friend's house. These experience shape us, even when they are not ours, personally.


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