What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl

Norton. Jun. 2021. 312p. ISBN 9780393651980. $26.95. CRIME
Debut author Dykstra dives headfirst into the cold case of 18-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling, who in 1970 went missing in Cedar Rapids, IA. Although Dykstra acknowledges that she may never determine who killed Oberbroeckling, her book nevertheless sheds new light on the disappearance, contending that the case may not have been given the necessary time and resources, owing to sexism and racism. When Oberbroeckling went missing, she (as a white woman) had recently exited a relationship with a Black man, had a new boyfriend, and was possibly pregnant. Dykstra writes that investigators quickly deemed her a “bad girl” and closed her case just two years later. In writing this book, Dykstra faced roadblocks (the loss of some case files in a flood; the passage of time), but attempts to give the case the due diligence Oberbroeckling deserved. She interviews people in Oberbroeckling’s circle and studies what documentation she’s able to find. Along the way, Dykstra argues that despite social progress, misogyny still persists in U.S. criminal justice and that many women victims are written off by sexist investigators.
VERDICT Reopening a cold case, Dykstra reaches no definitive answers, but along the way she offers insight on the impact of societal attitudes on criminal investigations. Hand to readers interested in the intersection of true crime and women’s studies.
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