“Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.”
Wow. What a book.
We first meet 6 year old Zach hiding in a locked school closet as the sound of gunshot is ringing through the corridors of McKinley Elementary. Cringing in terror, Zach, his schoolfriends and Miss Russell, his teacher, huddle together – fingers on lips – as they hear the pop-pop-pop of the gunman, shooting pupils and teachers alike.
Finally, the shooting stops and the police come to lead the survivors out of the blood-drenched corridors. Zach ignores the instruction and sneaks a peek as they exit the building – and immediately wishes he didn’t. He doesn’t really understand what he’s seeing at this point, but the visions of motionless pupils lay on the floor comes back to haunt him later on.
Reunited with his parents who are waiting outside the school, Zach is relieved, but traumatised – and his Mum and Dad are both acting kind of crazy. Then he realises that his 10 year old brother Andy has not been led out of the school yet. They race to the hospital to find out how he is, and it is here that we learn the terrible truth. Andy was one of the 18 that didn’t make it.
The aftermath of this tragedy is played out from Zach’s point of view – through the eyes of a smart, sensitive little boy, we see the devastation caused by the actions of the gunman, and how the behaviour of the adults around him affects him. This bewildered little boy turns his confusion inwards and tries to find a way to classify and understand the emotions and things he is feeling. When he first finds out what has happened to Andy, he is quite excited at the thought of his big brother not being around because Andy can be mean and him not being there means he won’t get picked on all the time. We learn that Andy had ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and his behaviour was putting stress on the family in many different ways. So Zach, exhibiting similar signs himself, doesn’t understand why everyone’s only saying lovely things about Andy, when he wasn’t really like that. Why aren’t they telling the truth; that he was sometimes mean and angry and disruptive? Then this makes him feel bad as he starts to miss his brother terribly and tries to come to terms with the fact that he’s never coming home. He tries to make sense of this awful situation and why his security guard friend Charles’ son would do such a terrible thing.
Zach’s Mum and Dad aren’t getting on, his Mum is angry all the time and shouts at Zach a lot, and in her grief, turns her anger outwards and becomes obsessed with blaming Charles and his wife for not somehow preventing the tragic events that unfolded when their son killed her little boy.
As Zach, Rhiannon Navin lends compassion and tells a heartrending tale. It’s not a fun read, but it is worthy and gripping (I have never read an opening chapter like it!), and sadly pertinent in our times. It shows us grief under a spotlight of innocence and confusion, rather than judgement and anger.
A powerful novel that will keep you thinking about it, and Zach, and all the other children like Zach, long into the night.
Thanks to Netgalley, Pan MacMillan and the author for an ARC of this book in return for an honest review.