A Dying Man Seeks Answers and a Chance to Correct Past Mistakes

Book cover of The Stolen Child by Ann HoodBook cover of The Stolen Child by Ann Hood

When Nick Burns was a soldier during World War I, a French artist he had befriended gave him her paintings and her child and…disappeared. Now it’s 1974, and Nick, who has been haunted by his decision for decades, has months left to live. Desperate to solve the mystery of the missing baby, he hires Jenny, a college dropout eager to get her life back on the rails, to help him track down some answers and, just maybe, find some peace.

The search takes Nick and Jenny to unexpected terrain—literally and emotionally—as they grapple with regret, deceit, secrets, and forgiveness in this timeless and unforgettable novel.

The Stolen Child: A Novel by Ann Hood is available May 7, wherever books are sold.

Nick decided to add a dog to his painting. A dog like Bandit, his long-­dead childhood dog, a spotted mutt with long, glamorous ears. But the woman—­Camille—­had made him unsure of his ability to capture Bandit, or anything, just right. He needed to get the perfect shade of brown—­reddish but not red. Damn her. Nick was not a man who doubted himself.

“Hey, Rembrandt,” a voice from above him said.

Nick looked up and into the face of that angel.

“This is what real art looks like,” she said, handing him a small square painting.

Nick took it from her. It was smaller than a book, maybe six inches by six inches, but the intensity of the colors and the vividness of the scene—­a cow in a field—­had the impact of a much larger painting. The cow seemed almost real, the hay and grass behind her almost alive. In the distance, a swish of blue, the vague outline of a person.

“Here,” Camille said, and handed him another one, of a farmer at a plow, with the same size and intensity. The same blue swish, this time by the farmhouse.

“Why so small?” Nick asked her.

“At first it was because of this stupid war. How could I get canvas for large paintings? So I made many canvases out of what would have been just one painting. But eventually I came to prefer this size. It has more . . . ” She struggled for the word in English, frowning because she couldn’t find it.

“Impact,” Nick said.

“Impact,” Camille repeated, nodding. “I have dozens of them.”

“Wow,” Nick said. “They’re really impressive.”

“I know,” she said.

Nick laughed. “Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

He thought of Lillian deferring to his taste—­in food and art and books. It used to make him feel puffed up to be so in charge. But this confidence, this certainty, was far more interesting.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked him. “I’ve spent my life working to become an artist. That’s all I’ve ever wanted since my aunt took me to Paris to see Mary Cassatt’s show of ten prints of women attending their toilette.”

She paused, frowning again.

“You do know her work?” she asked.

“Mary Cassatt?” Nick repeated. He did not in fact know her work.

“You know Degas?” she demanded.





“What’s your point?” Nick said.

“No one knows the women painters. Only the men. Cassatt is as good as any of them. Better in some cases,” she said. “Cassatt’s Woman Bathing struck me dumb,” she continued, her voice quiet now. “I was only six years old, but somehow I understood something important was happening to me as I looked at that painting.”

He knew what she meant. He had felt that too, standing in front of Winslow Homer’s painting The Fog Warning at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on a dreary March afternoon a few years ago. He’d gone there with a girl who went to Pembroke, the sister of his roommate, visiting from Providence. He was mildly bored with her and the museum until he walked into a gallery and saw that painting and something in him shifted. Should he share this with this woman? Would she believe he really did understand?

“All I want, all I ever wanted, was to go to Paris and paint. But here I am”—­her hands swept across her belly—­“like this, in a war.”

“Surely you want this too,” Nick said. “A family? A home?”

“My parents wanted this for me,” she said.

“Don’t women . . . ” Nick began. But he couldn’t finish his sentence. He thought all women wanted children and a husband and nice things, but maybe he was wrong.

Camille reached out her hand for her paintings, which Nick was still holding.

When he gave them back to her, she said, “You are an American man who has had an easy life, no?”

“Well,” Nick said, “I wouldn’t call life down here easy.”

“I mean before this. You never had to think hard or work hard. You never had to make a hard decision, did you?”

“I worked hard,” he said, but he didn’t say it with much conviction. Rowing had been hard, he supposed, but it had come naturally to him. He’d even liked getting up at dawn to practice, the sound of the oars as they hit the water, the way the boat glided across the surface.

“What would you do if you had to make a life-­or-­death decision? Would you make the right choice?” she asked.

“Look,” Nick said, “we’re in the middle of a war. Everything is life or death.”

“I don’t think you’d be able to do it,” she said with that same confidence. “I think you are too weak.”

“Hey,” he said. “Where do you get off saying things like that?”

Camille narrowed her eyes at him, studying his face long enough to make him uncomfortable.

“I mean, you don’t know anything about me,” Nick said.

“I know you are a man,” she said. “That is all I need to know. Men are all talk, but when they have to actually do something—­”

“With all due respect, ma’am, men are the ones out here fighting this war.”

“Men caused this war, no?”

“Well,” Nick began.

“In that house,” Camille said, “is my husband, waiting for his dinner. What kind of world is this where a man cannot make himself even a simple egg?”

“I can make eggs,” Nick said. “Scrambled.”

“In some ways, it is my misfortune that I was a born a woman,” Camille said. “And it is your misfortune that you were born a man.”

Nick wanted to defend himself, to prove to her that he could do whatever was asked of him, no matter how difficult. But she was hoisting herself up, her big belly pushing against the thin striped cotton of her dress.

“Don’t go,” he said.

She paused, half in and half out. “Why?”

Nick shrugged. “I like talking to you.”

That wasn’t entirely true. After all, she made him feel like an idiot. But he felt a pull toward her, embarrassingly sexual even though she was so hugely pregnant.

He stared up at her, from her feet in those ridiculous work boots, past the thick socks with ragged tops poking from the boots, to her pale calves, to the hem of the thin striped dress. Blue and white, those stripes. Then the enormous belly and heavy breasts, the slender long neck, the red lips and dark eyes.

“Do you believe in . . . in—­”

“God? No,” she said definitively. “God wouldn’t make this horrible war.”

“Not God,” Nick said. “Coup . . . coup de foudre?

But she was out of the trench already, her boots dangling briefly, then gone.

“Camille,” he said softly, although he knew she couldn’t hear him.

He didn’t see her again for a week, until the night the Germans finally arrived.

All those weeks down here, waiting, waiting, for this? Nick thought. Around him, gunfire lit the sky and memories of the Fourth of July back home flooded him. The Roman candles spouting pink and blue and the bright white sparks of sparklers. Strange, he knew, to be facing death and thinking of something so beautiful, so joyful. He stood, unable to retreat or to move forward. He would add fireworks to his painting, he decided, ridiculously. Men shouted, in English and German. Guns exploded. And still Nick could not move.

Then: a woman’s voice.

“Take them,” she said.

Her face in the strange light of war was beautiful, round and pale. One morning, Nick had heard the screams of childbirth and then, finally, the thin wail of a baby. She hadn’t come out since then. Until now.

“Camille,” he managed to say.

Her eyes, darting from his face to the encroaching soldiers, were wide with terror.

“Save them,” she said, and she placed two small bundles into his arms.

Nick glanced down, not knowing how he could do what she asked, how he could possibly save anything. One bundle, wrapped in coarse beige linen, had the corners of canvases jutting from it. The other, in a soft white blanket, revealed half of the sleeping face of a baby.

“He is Laurent,” she said softly.

Nick couldn’t take his eyes from the boy’s face. The ridiculously long lashes. The impossibly tiny nose. Eyebrows so fair they looked like shadows of eyebrows. But when he finally did look back up, Camille was gone.

He squinted into the darkness, knowing that calling her name would only alert soldiers to her presence. A fresh burst of artillery fire lit the sky, and in the flash of light he saw her running. Her long dark hair spread around her, her blue dress tangled in her legs. She was barefoot. Smoke surrounded her, but she did not stop. Nick watched her until she disappeared in the distant woods.

His heart banged against his ribs. He could taste gunpowder and smoke and blood. He should go back into the trench. He should leave both bundles and pray that the Germans wouldn’t go down there. But of course they would. And they would destroy the paintings and do what to the baby? Kill him? Leave him to die? He is Laurent.

Ahead of him, Nick saw what he thought were fallen trees. But no, they were bodies. Dozens of them. He had to do something. Anything.

If Camille had gone to the woods, perhaps she knew it was safe there. Carefully, he lifted his gun and looped it around his shoulder. An eerie silence filled the air now, cut only by thick coughing and the hum of moans. Nick went in the direction Camille had gone, the sky dark except for a waning moon shrouded in clouds. The paintings rocked against each other in the linen; the baby remained still and warm.

Then more gunfire, this time from the woods, from the direction in which Camille had run.

Nick was shaking so hard that he could hear the canvases banging against each other. He had to think. He had to do something.

He stumbled in the smoke that was filling the air, its rotten stink gagging him.

He had to save them, these paintings, this tiny baby.

But how?

More gunfire. Closer. The sounds of German soldiers shouting.

I don’t want to die. God help me, I don’t want to die, Nick thought. Or maybe he said it out loud?

He should drop the paintings and run with the baby. But run where? There was, he realized, nowhere to run. Firing was all around him.

Slowly Nick began to walk in the opposite direction of the gunfire. He walked and he walked and he walked, fast, until the smoke was gone and the air was still. He was in a village, a village that seemed empty, deserted. But someone would return, surely, to his home. And that person would walk down this cobblestoned street and see this baby and rescue him. Yes. That would be the safest and smartest thing to do. Leave the baby here, safe, to be found.

Nick walked to a well in the center of the town square. It was dawn and birds were singing. He looked around again. The villagers had fled, he supposed. But they would come back. Of course they would come back.

He laid the small bundle in the grass by the well. If he’d had paper and a pen, he would have written a note explaining everything. But all he had were his paints, so he took out the reddest paint and wrote Laurent on the well above the baby’s head. Laurent’s small rosebud lips were sucking at nothing. Please find him, Nick thought. Or perhaps he’d said that out loud too. He tightened his grip on the other bundle, Camille’s beautiful paintings. Without thinking, he pulled a few out and tucked them snug beneath the baby. A thank-­you for whoever saved Laurent. No, Nick thought. A bribe.

Slowly, he walked away from the baby. Somewhere not too far away, a rooster crowed, as if this were an ordinary day.

Nick kept walking until he reached another village, this one full of triumphant soldiers. Thankfully they were Italian, on his side. He sat on a park bench, stunned, silent.

A soldier approached him, spoke in Italian. Nick shrugged, tried to indicate that he didn’t understand.

The soldier was pointing. In the distance, Nick saw what he was trying to tell him. There were Americans over there.

Excerpted from The Stolen Child: A Novel by Ann Hood. Copyright © 2023 by Ann Hood. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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