Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2014 (2014)
Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle
n a hot Monday in August, 1966, a young man named Charles Whitman lugged a footlocker full of guns to the top of the University of Texas tower in Austen and began to shoot pedestrians who were crossing the plaza below. By the time he was killed, sixteen people had been shot to death and thirty-two others were wounded in this first mass shooting of civilians on a college campus in American history. In
, a fictionalized account of this slaughter, Elizabeth Crook tells the story of four people who were immediately involved, as well as family members whose lives were later affected by the shootings.
he first chapter introduces us to Shelly Maddox, the main character, and tells what happened to her as she left a math class and began walking across the plaza. After Shelly is shot, two young men move out onto the targeted area, while the shooting is still going on, intending to rescue anyone who has been hit and is still alive. Jack Stone had returned to college after losing part of an ear in Vietnam, so bravery under fire isn't new to him, and he instructs his younger cousin, Wyatt Calvert, to move in a zigzag to avoid being a target.
hey make it to Shelly, and pull her out of the direct vision of the shooter in the tower. But there isn't enough room for all three of them to shelter there, so Jack runs off to try to help someone else and is also shot. This first chapter, with the detailed description of the action, including Shelly's terrible injuries and what she can see of bleeding and dying students nearby, is so gripping, demanding the readers' attention, that it becomes impossible to put down the book until the shooting stops.
he stories of Shelly, Wyatt, and Jack continue to be interesting, with surprises along the way. Later in the book, Dan, who watched the shooting from inside one of the buildings, becomes the fourth person who can't escape having his life forever changed by these events. We follow the characters through many years and many changes in their lives. The author succeeds in depicting them appropriately, each growing and changing with their various life experiences, but remaining somehow trapped by having been in the wrong place at the wrong time on that day in Austen, Texas. Shelly remains the central character, though, and her story is the most complete.
he descriptions of the people and the times are particularly well done by the author. We are reminded about hair styles and clothing of the various time periods, and these details increase the credibility of the story. Shelly is thinking about joining the Peace Corps, for instance, and she's wearing a pencil skirt. One of the boys who has been shot is wearing Bermuda shorts, and another girl is said to be wearing pedal pushers - all styles that were popular in 1966.
loved this book. In fact, I could hardly put it down, even after the initial excitement died down, Shelly and Jack healed, and their lives went on. It is such an interesting study of what can happen to ordinary people after unthinkable things happen to them, and how the ripples go out from their lives to those of other people who are significant to them in some way. It is a particularly timely book to be written now, after there have been so many mass shootings on campuses and in schools in the United States, when thoughtful people are struggling to find solutions to stop these slaughters of the innocent.
here is great sadness in the stories of these people, but also love. The book ended on an optimistic note that is a tribute to the ability of most people to bounce back from terrible trials and rebuild their lives in satisfying ways.
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