Some writers set out to plot their novels with a steadfast plan, notebooks full of outlines, and complex character sketches. For Rene Denfeld, Oregon-based author of the widely acclaimed novel The Enchanted and three other books of nonfiction, the novel unfurled almost as though its narrator, a nameless prisoner with a magical outlook, had been waiting to tell her his story all along. Said Denfeld in a phone interview, “I was leaving an Oregon prison one day, and happened to look at the tall stone walls of this old prison built in 1866 when I heard this distinctive voice say ‘This is an enchanted place.’”
That goes on to be the first line in her lyrical novel, which explores the stark realities of life for death-row inmates, a death-row investigator known as “the lady”, and a fallen priest, whose fates are drawn together.
Denfeld draws on her personal work as a death-row investigator for the book as well, though she makes clear these characters are amalgams, not drawn from literal cases.
“A lot of the book represents a lot of the truths that I see in my work,” she said.
And what are those truths? At its heart The Enchanted is about how people are “capable of finding joy, beauty even, when they are in despairing circumstances” and that with understanding comes the opportunity for compassion and healing. Denfeld, who herself comes from a rough upbringing, knows from personal experience what it is like to have to heal traumatic circumstances. She credits books she read as a child for helping her survive. “I lived in the imaginary world of books half the time, and everything that I learned in terms of values came from books. I found my morality there.”
Her morality is evident in the pages of The Enchanted. The novel may speak to themes of hope and redemption, but it doesn’t flinch away from peering closely in at the horror or darkness of the human condition and reminding us what we are capable of—it covers the gamut, from the murder of a child, to prison rape and much more, but it does so with care. While some might judge that her day-job in investigative work, which requires hours listening to hard felons tell their tales is in some way minimizing the victims’ experience, Denfeld would disagree. “I don’t think it condones the crimes to see the truth of why it happened; I think it honors the seriousness of these offenses when we’re able to look at a person and find out why they did it.” She adds that victims’ families often just want to know “why” and that is where her work has the potential to be helpful in later healing.
Denfeld says that while she loves her job, it has given her “secondary PTSD” and she knows that she won’t be able to stay in the work forever. In 2007, she was a single mom of three children, working as a freelance journalist and book author who knew she needed “a day job.” While doing research for her book about street kid homicides, she met investigators and found their jobs fascinating. “It was like reporting but with a chance to go deeper and deeper. I got licensed as an investigator and went right into the work,” she said.
The authenticity of the details she draws from her own work leap off the page, like in this passage from The Enchanted:
The tight dungeonlike stairs are dark corners and spittle-drying places that a wise man avoids. The lady takes a deep breath and plunges up them. Claustrophobia has always plagued her. It has taken her years to get used to entering this prison, with its loud slamming gates and shocking claps of metal locks and her own deep memories of knowing what it is like to feel trapped.
Her personal history is also helpful in her work and writing, where she is probing deeply personal, often tragic circumstances for information that may be used in court cases, often for the defense. “I don’t think I would be able to do the work I do, or have the insights I do, if I didn’t have my background. I tell my kids, who came from hardships in foster care, you can turn those hardships into strengths.”
Nicknamed by her colleagues as the “hundred pound crap detector,” she laughingly said, “It’s easy to help people be honest with me because they can sense I’m not going to be shocked or hurt by their words. I’m not easy to fool or manipulate, either.”
This is probably because Denfeld saw plenty of “crap” in her early years. Denfeld’s father, as far as she knows, was a pimp named “Johnny” who, she writes in an essay published in the New York Times, “Saved us from an even worse pimp named Lane, who beat my mother bloody.” Her house was often “crowded with prostitutes” and worse, and she and her younger siblings became adept at the art of survival.
Her upbringing made her decision to adopt children out of foster care an easy choice. “It made such perfect sense that kids needed a home and I could give it to them,” she said. She was in her twenties when she began the process, and because she had no parenting experience she approached it proactively, taking “tons of parenting classes and learned about attachment theories, practiced floor time, occupational therapy and counseling.”
While she hoped adopting children would give them a sense of home and family, she wasn’t expecting how much it would give back to her. “In parenting them, I parented myself. I had no idea how much fun it would be to read stories at night, go to the swimming pool, do these amazing childhood things.”
Her three children are teens now, and all thriving.
The optimistic outlook that Denfeld has crafted for herself out of her rough roots shows itself all throughout The Enchanted in tender, lyrical language coupled with unflinching reality. You can’t come away from such a book unmoved.
“True compassion is seeing and hearing each other for who we really are,” Denfeld said. “We desperately want to be seen and heard.”
The lady is glad that she came. Sometimes the roads she takes don’t bring her anyplace she can offer in court, but they give her insight all the same. It feels good to stand with her beaten black boots crunching the dirt above York’s mother’s bones, to feel a recognition: You existed, you counter, you were here.
The Enchanted comes out in Paperback in February. Pre-order your copy now!