The aftermath of a school shooting, told from the point of view of a first-grader who hid with his class in a closet while his 10-year-old brother and 18 others were massacred.
“The thing I later remembered the most about the day the gunman came was my teacher Miss Russell’s breath. It was hot and smelled like coffee.…POP POP POP. It sounded a lot like the sounds from the Star Wars game I sometimes play on the Xbox.” Like Emma Donoghue’s Room, Navin’s debut takes the risk of narrating a gruesome modern tragedy in the voice of a very young player. At 6, Zach Taylor comes only slowly to understand what has happened that day at school. He is with his mother at the hospital waiting to see if his brother, Andy, is among the wounded when his father arrives. “Daddy’s face was like a grayish color, and his mouth looked all funny, with his lower lip pulled down so I could see his teeth….First Mommy’s eyes got really big, and then her whole self started shaking and she started acting crazy. She yelled, 'Jim? Oh my God, no no no no no no no no no!'” Because Andy had oppositional defiant disorder and was routinely unkind to him, Zach wonders at first if perhaps his death will be an improvement. During what he perceives as the “party” that goes on at his house after the massacre, he sequesters himself in his brother’s closet and imagines life as an only child. “Like they could both come to my piano recitals and they could both stay for the whole time.” Soon he sees just how wrong he is, as every cherished ritual of his life is pitched overboard, his mother changes into someone he doesn’t know, and he is tormented by nightmares and uncontrollable rages. Since his parents are preoccupied to the point of cruelty and don’t get him professional help, he is on his own in figuring out how to cope. His touching tactics include assigning colors to his feelings and making paintings of them and studying the “secrets of happiness” purveyed in the Magic Treehouse series. Seems like a lot of people, and not just the ones in this novel, need to reread those books.
A powerful exercise in empathy and perspective.