(3.5 stars) Forty-six-year-old journalist Peter Niels is touring Taiwan, a country he thoroughly enjoys, when he and his photographer, Josh Pickett, have a day free from professional responsibilities. Deciding to visit the famous Taroko Gorge, they become involved in a strange disappearance. A group of ninth grade Japanese students has come to Taroko for an end-of-the year class trip, and three of them go missing shortly after Niels and Pickett have seen them.
Author Jacob Ritari alternates his points of view from Peter Niels to Michiko Kamakuri, one of the schoolgirls on the trip who decided not to go exploring on her own; Tohru Maruyama, the ninth grade Class Representative with whom several of the girls are "in love"; and Detective Hsien Chao, the stodgy Taiwanese policeman called in to investigate the disappearances. The chaperone of the Japanese trip, Mr. Tanaka, is under great pressure to find the girls and ensure a happy ending. When a typhoon hits Taiwan before the girls have been found, the tension increases exponentially. Everyone suddenly begins to see everyone else in a new light, and the hidden resentments among the various groups--Taiwanese, Japanese, and Americans--begin to be revealed. Taiwanese Det. Hsien Chao admits he hates the Japanese and does not like Americans. Chaperone Tanaka finds the Taiwanese lazy.
While all the adults are dealing with the missing students and their own personal issues, some of the young students left at the campsite are exploring the world of love and sex, and at this point, it may be difficult for some readers not to be reminded of the plots of Young Adult fiction. Throughout the emergency, spiritual portents and religious references emerge. A monk from the nearby Buddhist temple appears and offers help, Neils hears a mysterious voice, and the ghost of one of the missing students appears. A mixture of commentary from Catholicism, Buddhism, and other New Age religions adds some spiritual significance to the participants' inner searches.
Told in clean and simple prose, the novel emphasizes plot and the effects of the disappearances on individual characters, though there are few complexities and surprises. The resolution comes naturally from the plot and ties up the loose ends without any major surprises. Since the majority of characters are about fourteen, the complexity in their lives revolves primarily around puberty, their ability to deal with the pressures of their competitive school lives, and their fear for their missing friends, and though the characters are Japanese, Taiwanese, and American, the different cultural values and behaviors are far less important here and have far less impact on character than what one might expect or hope for in a novel with this setting. Mary Whipple