At 13, she is shy, a little chunky perhaps and unsure of her place in a bigger world. Julie tends toward being forgettable, until a handsome and exotic man sees her — Julie Portner — from among older and prettier girls while they attend her grandmother’s funeral.
Now meet Yolanda Hernandez, 15, withdrawn, a typical teenage girl losing dependence on her mother.
A worldly high school attending her high school changes Yolanda in a way her mother and friends don’t understand.
Circumstances throw these two innocents into a life of sex slavery in the fictional story “thedeadgirlinthevacantlot” written by Jana Bommersbach. This story may be fictional, but the reality of sex slavery was pulled straight from today’s headlines, reminding readers it can occur in big city and small town alike.
Bommersbach’s “thedeadgirlinthevacantlot” is the second story featuring investigative journalist Joya Bonner, who often carries the voice of Bommersbach, one of Arizona’s most acclaimed journalists, her true sense of outrage at how children and women are treated.
Joya knows nothing about the world of sex trafficking. Thinking the sex trade is reserved for places like Thailand or Russia, finding it’s alive and thriving in her own backyard of Phoenix slaps Joya right in the face.
She must face this grim reality immediately after following police sirens early one morning to discovers the horrifying brutality of what used to be a young girl found dead in a vacant lot.
This excerpt from the story tells it best: “Her hair was torn out in clumps. Her skimpy skirt was blood-soaked and torn. Her legs were blue with bruises. Her right arm laid so askew, it had to be broken.”
The story follows Joya, Julie and Yolanda in a brutally honest account of sex trafficking.
“I thought the only way to do this was to make you live in that moment,” Bommersbach said, talking from the back patio at her mother’s home in Hankinson while birds in nearby trees chirped, interspersed with the periodic sound of traffic passing by on the highway out front.
It doesn’t seem possible to discuss things like rape, kidnapping and sexual slavery in this idyllic setting, but as Joya discovers in “thedeadgirlinthevacantlot,” the sex trade happens across the country without regard for age, ethnicity or social standards.
Bommersbach writes with brutal realism to ensure her story is told correctly. Preparing for this story brought her into contact with a survivor, who helped strategize scenes and situations, who offered suggestions to keep the story realistic.
Not afraid to delve into issues like oral sex or rape, it is a dark story that kept Bommersbach up some nights as she worried about telling the story with honesty, which is why she published it herself because she didn’t “want anyone else messing around with this story,” she said.
Throughout the book, the question still begs to be answered — who is the dead girl found in a vacant lot?
Behind the headlines
Bommersbach’s beloved Phoenix features prominently in thedeadgirlinthevacantlot as does fictional Northville, North Dakota, situated close to Hankinson.
Phoenix and Hankinson routinely weave themselves into her fictional stories. In a sense, she has dual citizenship and claims them both home, drawn to the tranquil peace of Hankinson and frenzy of big-city life in Phoenix.
Bommersbach visits her mother, Willie Bommersbach, each summer in Hankinson, drawn to this small southeastern North Dakota community to write her novels in a peaceful setting. She began writing “thedeadgirlinthevacantlot” during last summer’s visit, amid the same innocent sound of birds and while watching squirrels chase up the trees surrounding her mother’s home.
Many of the historical facts in the story are real, coming from actual copy she wrote when her former business partners, newspapermen Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey were arrested, inflaming both Bommersbach and Joya in a clear violation of the First Amendment and their right to free speech.
Readers quickly discover Larkin and Lacey are far from innocent victims.
Further into the story, Joya discovers the two began Backpage.com, which became a haven for sex trafficking, including that of young children. The outrage portrayed by Joya is exactly what Bommersbach felt three years ago when she was told exactly what Backpage did, prompting her to say in the epilogue “I write this book with a broken heart.”
As the editor of Phoenix New Times, Bommersbach was a business partner to both Larkin and Lacey.
Larkin and Lacey remained free from prosecution for years, which changed just before she was almost done with the book, causing a furious rewrite of events.
Bommersbach typically writes stories about women being wronged. Her six previous books have all been acclaimed, including debut novel, “The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd,” which was an Edgar Allan Poe finalist. Her first historical novel “Cattle Kate” was named one of the best books of 2014 by Publisher’s Weekly.
Bommersbach said her new book clearly tells the story of how Julie and Yolanda were wronged, continuing her saga of weaving stories around strong female characters.