I’ve been excited to read this since I first found out that the book existed and was going to be published. As with too much of the rest of the country, I have a strange fascination with tragedy and why it happens, so a book about a school shooting is right up my alley. (Particularly since it’s a fictional shooting. Real death = sad.) If nothing else, I wanted to see how the author approached it, particularly since it’s told in multiple perspectives.
I’m not sure I could have adequately prepared for this book.
In what I think is the wisest move, none of the four viewpoints are the shooter’s. I can see the temptation to tell the story from their point of view, get the “real” story of why it’s happening, but the truth of the matter is that we rarely get that. We see those who know them, those affected by their actions–and that’s who we see in our four viewpoints. Two trapped inside the auditorium by the shooter, one elsewhere in the school trying to help, and one outside the school. Toss in some excerpts from Twitter, blog posts, and text messages from assorted others and we get a pretty good image of what the scene looks like. It’s chilling, it’s real, it’s heart-wrenching at times.
But what I’d really like to focus on is some of the criticisms I’ve seen elsewhere, and why I disagree with some of them.
“It’s like the author took a diversity checklist and just checked all the boxes” – All right, I see where this is coming from. We have LGBT main characters, we have a student with an auto-immune disorder which puts him on crutches, we have a token (and he’s described that way) Middle Eastern student, a Latino family…yes, there’s a lot of diversity stuff in there, and not many of any of them. It’s easy to say that the author just put one of each in there to say “hey look, I can be diverse too.”
However, it’s also established that Opportunity High School is a relatively small school, in a small town. Being someone who grew up in exactly that kind of place, this looks very familiar. I can point out people I went to school with and assign them roles from this book based on their “diversity profile.” I probably could have taken every student at my high school who was something other than Caucasian and counted them on both hands, and never run out of fingers. (LGBT is a different story; it wasn’t something you discussed there. Ever. Given the reaction to the female couple in the story, Opportunity isn’t too much different from that.) So yes, this felt very normal to me, and never felt forced. Their race is a sub-detail to who they are, rather than a plot point. (Save for one, but for me, that just added another layer of realism. But spoilers.)
“This book is so black and white. All of the characters are either totally good or all bad.” – This is the one I’ve seen the most, and the one I disagree with the strongest. That somehow all of our victims are perfect, and our shooter just evil for the sake of being evil…it’s not there. I don’t see the evidence of it. Two of our four viewpoint characters struggle greatly with how to react to the shooter and what he’s doing. The other two are on the absolute other end of the spectrum, and do see the shooter as evil – and not for no reason, either.
What I see is a young man who had anger issues to begin with, who had no clue where his life was going, and then everything he knew started to fall out under him–and he lashed out. He snapped. He’d finally had enough and decided to take it out on everything and everyone he’d decided wronged him.
He’d make sure they remembered him. Now that’s a sentiment I’ve seen in many of the shootings, particularly recently.
The shooter isn’t evil just for the sake of being the bad guy. He’s broken. Most of our narrators are broken in some way, and they’ve all found different ways of channeling it. Our shooter…well, has chosen the most destructive.
“I couldn’t get invested in any of the characters because there was too much going on.” – God forbid you ever read Tolkien. Or Lewis. Or whole bunches of other people. Yes, there are a lot of side plots and people to keep in mind. We have four view point characters. In some ways they’re linked, sure. In most other ways, they’re not, however. These are four separate people with four separate lives. There’s going to be a lot going on. I thought Nijkamp did an excellent job of keeping them all apart, and giving just enough detail so we could keep the lines straight. (Particularly since several of them overlapped.)
In any event.
I do not understand the extent to which this book has been harshly criticized. Is it perfect? No. Could it have done more? Yeah, probably. But I was still misty-eyed by the candle vigil at the end. I was still touched by the end of Autumn’s story. My heart still ached for so many of them.
And isn’t that what it shouldn’t have done for us? I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Rating: **** (Recommended)