This unfortunately timely story begins with a mass school shooting, and is narrated by six-year-old Zach Taylor, who survives the carnage, although his ten-year-old brother Andy does not. The rest of the book describes in detail the painful stages of adjustment for each member of the family.
The author makes a courageous choice to portray the affected family in rather unflattering terms, which situates the story more squarely in realism. It also means that the reader must meet the same challenge as one of the characters in the story, i.e., to recognize that even those who are not saintly (but merely human) still experience pain and deserve our compassion.
Andy had ODD, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a frequent and persistent pattern of anger, irritability, arguing, defiance or vindictiveness toward you and other authority figures.” The dad, Jim, wanted Andy to take medication for it, and the mom, Melissa, resisted. But now that Andy is dead, no one seems to remember how bad he was except Zach. As Zach complained after the funeral, no one talked about Andy like they even knew him:
“And so it was like everyone was crying and being sad, but not about the actual Andy, just a version of him that wasn’t the right one. It was like no one was saying good-bye properly to him.”
Melissa, going through grief then anger, has no time or patience for her son who is still living. Jim is not home often at any rate; even prior to the massacre, the marriage had been crumbling, in part because of conflicts over Andy. Zach wakes up screaming during the night from nightmares, wets the bed, and worse. Yet his parents’ attention is mostly elsewhere. Then when Melissa gets carried away with her anger, and “thunderclouds” take over their lives, Zach decides he has to take matters into his own hands.
Discussion: This distressing story shows only one slice of the Hell that families endure after a shooting. There are also families with members who were fired on but didn’t die; victims with injuries so bad they may never fully recover; traumatized people at all levels who lost friends, teachers, and coaches; and the recurring nightmares of those who hid in closets fearing for their lives.
But this is also a story about families in general; about how easy it is for members to lose focus and stop recognizing what should be the most important aspects of their lives. As Zach relays to his parents the messages he learns about happiness from his favorite books, “The Magic Tree House” series: “Pay attention to the small things around you in nature.” “Be curious about things.” “Have sympathy.” And last but not least: “Take care of each other.”
Evaluation: How I wish for a world in which I could describe this plot as “too unrealistic.” Given that it is all too close to weekly occurrences in the U.S. news, those not yet personally touched by one of these gun tragedies will gain insights into what the real-life impact is, especially the effects on children.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018