Portland writer also wins national award for social justice work; North Portland resident talks about 'The Child Finder'

RENE DENFELDOn Nov. 2, Portland writer and investigative reporter Rene Denfeld will go to Washington, D.C., for the Knock Out Abuse gala to receive an award for her social justice work.

The North Portland resident recently talked to the Tribune about that, and her new novel, "The Child Finder" ($25.99, HarperCollins).

"It's called the Break the Silence award, and I'm so honored to receive it," says Denfeld, from the home where she lives with her family and their Great Pyrenees.

"Every year, they give out one of these awards to one person involved in my kind of work on the ground floor."

Denfeld was picked for her social justice work and advocacy involving foster adoptions. In recent years she has focused on sex trafficking investigations.

Denfeld is taking a break from her work to promote "The Child Finder." The book is set in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest and draws upon Denfeld's personal experience as chief investigator for Portland's public defender's office, a job she held for years before starting her own private investigative practice.

How much of her own life did she mine for this book?

"A lot," she says. "The fun part of the book was including some of the procedural stuff and taking the reader along in an investigation. I like to say it's 90 percent persistence, 10 percent shoe leather — it's about finding obscure documents in hard-to-find places.

'The Child Finder'Her methods are all very grounded, she says, adding, "I've never met a psychic investigator. I don't think they exist."

The book takes the reader on a journey of discovery. The main character is a young woman named Naomi, a famous expert in missing children cases.

A childhood abuse survivor herself, Naomi struggles with elusive memories of what happened before the night she was found running through a field fleeing her captors.

Though Naomi lands in a loving home with a foster parent, she's unable to sustain close relationships as an adult.

Her new case focuses on a child who disappeared in a remote area while selecting a Christmas tree with her parents.

Though local authorities shelved it as a cold case, Naomi digs deep into the area's long-buried secrets and breathes new life into the search.

Fairy tales create an alternate world for the little girl Naomi is looking for in "The Child Finder."

Books and stories were an escape route for Denfeld, too. "The library saved me and books were my sanctuary," she says.

"Through them I created fantastical stories and I lived inside them. Resiliency is a hot topic these days, but I think it's imagination that can save you: If you can imagine a path out of the trap you're in, then you can imagine the steps you are going to take. Imagination is critical to survival."

Denfeld's 2014 book, "Enchanted," won numerous awards. A "Modern Love" article she wrote for the New York Times was about adopting her three foster children.

"It's been 20 years since I adopted my children, and it's the best choice I ever made," she says. "Through my kids I got to experience a happy childhood — I got to go to the zoo, I got to go to OMSI. I experienced the joy of a happy, safe childhood through them, and in some ways I rewrote my own childhood."

Denfeld thanks her fellow investigators in her book's acknowledgments. "People might think I'd be grim and despairing, but the longer I'm in this kind of work the more optimistic I've become," she says.

"In Portland we have an amazing Public Defender's Office," she says, citing the work of its veterans office, people who work with refugees, foster kids, and those forced into sex trafficking.

It's striking how unafraid Denfeld is. "As women we are conditioned to be afraid all the time and that really constrains us. I know a fair amount of self-defense and I go by myself to the poorest parts of our state, to the trailer parks and tenements. And the people there are not bad, they're just poor. And I really believe, like Naomi says in the book, that fear doesn't keep you safe."

Denfeld sees the humanity in people who've done terrible things. "In my own case, the man I considered my father is a registered predatory sex offender. I don't forgive him, but do I see his humanity. At the same time, I would like to to prevent it from happening to other children."

If we're lucky, Denfeld will continue to draw readers in with her hard-boiled and kind-hearted stories of redemption.

Rene Denfeld will appear at Wordstock, Nov. 11 at the Portland Art Museum, as well as join writer Jenny Forrester ("Narrow River, Wide Sky") at an event at Broadway Books, 1714 N.E. Broadway, 7 p.m. Nov. 29.

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