Can a novel change the world? Maybe this one will help.
by Leon Pantenburg
Disclaimer: “The Black Lens” author Christopher Stollar is a friend, and we both worked for The Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon.
For me, the first novel that changed my perception of the world was Huckleberry Finn. That was in the sixth grade, and ultimately, Mark Twain would send me on a journey down the Mississippi River, just like the main character.
Then it was Atlas Shrugged. This made me re-think my political views, and helped shape my philosophy of life.
Now, there’s The Black Lens, by Christopher Stollar. I’m still processing this.
The Black Lens is about sex trafficking, and the setting is La Pine, Oregon, a town I’m very familiar with.
I reported about south Deschutes County, Oregon, for “The Bend Bulletin” for more than a decade. La Pine was my town. I covered school board meetings, city government, crime – you name it. I knew everybody, and – I thought – knew everything that was going on.
After I left full-time work with the newspaper, I continued to freelance for the Bulletin in the area. Stollar covered the area after I moved on.
In many ways, the south county beat fulfilled my journalism school pipe dream of living in a small town in the mountains and editing the local newspaper. I thought, and still think, that La Pine is a great place to raise kids.
But La Pine has many areas of gut-wrenching poverty, which rival any American poverty pocket. La Pine has its share of drug and social problems and no town is ever without its underbelly of crime, graft and corruption. But the average person doesn’t see much of that.
The main character, Zoey, has a terrible home life, and goes to South County High, which in reality would be La Pine High School. This makes her a prime choice for being recruited into a prostitution ring.
Zoey goes to a party, drinks a drugged glass of something, and passes out. Then Zoey is blackmailed on social media with a series of porno photos she’s in. The plot worsens, as Zoey and her special needs sister, Camille, are dragged into into a downward spiral of drugs, sex trafficking and prostitution.
Seeking to break out of the awful cycle, Zoey contacts the local newspaper reporter who covers La Pine. He is, naturally, interested in the story and helps the girls uncover a sex trafficking conspiracy that reaches high in the school system and Deschutes Sheriff’s Department. It is nice to see small town newspaper reporters finally get some well-deserved credit for the work they do!
The ending kept me up reading way past my bedtime, to see how it came out.
Anyone familiar with Central Oregon will recognize the places mentioned in the book. There is no “Jugs” strip joint at the edge of town, but the fictional location is loosely based on a cabaret in Bend. We know which truck stop Stollar is writing about, and the location of the trailer park Zoey lives in. (I covered a fire there one frigid morning.)
And the descriptions of walking through the snow to the Dairy Queen across the highway during a storm are absolutely spot on.
I ran into Stollar recently at a presentation at Journey Church in Bend. He was on a book tour designed to raise awareness about sex slavery, and was working with the Guardian Group, an organization that fights sex trafficking.
All the book’s research was done in Ohio over a five-year period, he said, and Stollar interviewed police officers, social workers and more than a dozen victims. All the names and places are changed to protect the sources, he said, and the main character is based on the story of a real life victim.
Every major plot point, he said, is based on fact.
“It is rare for a person to be kidnapped like in the movie Taken,” Chris said. “Many of the girls get trafficked through people they know. Often, the victim stays at home, continues to go to school and is trafficked on weekends or after school. One victim said she was trafficked at age 13. ”
Profits from sex trafficking, Stollar says, are in excess of $150 billion per year, making exploitation a major industry. Human trafficking is currently the second largest and fastest growing crime industry, according to the Guardian Group.
The book was set in La Pine, he said, because rural Central Oregon is a great example of “It could happen anywhere.”
“Two weeks ago, several people were arrested in Central Oregon as part of a prostitution sting,” Stollar said. “Look at the personal ads on social media – you’ll find sex trafficking in your area. Pimps are very good at using social media.”
Stollar chose fiction as his platform, because he “loves storytelling,” and because he saw it as a vehicle for raising awareness.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is published in 1852. It sold 300,000 copies within three months and was so widely read that when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. On critic called the book “… the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” If you haven’t yet, read it.
The Black Lens could have a similar impact – it is superbly written, and is getting a lot of attention. It recently made it into the Kindle books Top Ten Crime Thrillers.
But the book is not an easy read. It made me feel gritty. It is disturbing. It is hard and raw. Stollar’s wordsmithing skill is that good.
Above all, it made me wonder what I could do to help.
“Sex trafficking a dark topic nobody wants to talk about,” Stollar said. “But it’s in every community. It’s not going away.”