When all the students of Opportunity High try to leave their assembly, they find the doors are locked. They then see Tyler on stage with a gun. “Everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun.” The majority of the novel is 53 terrifying minutes.
The plot unravels from different narrators, all of whom know Tyler in a different way: as a sister, an ex-girlfriend, those he’s accused of ruining his life and taking his family from him, and various classmates. Students are able to text and alert the outside, but the instant posting can’t deflect the instant picking off of students or teachers from a trigger happy dropout. This is dark, no doubt, but is getting lots of buzz so I read it.
Our different narrators are:
- Tomas: a student who was breaking into school files during the assembly so happens to be one of two people free to roam the halls and try to get the doors unlocked. He has also fought with Tyler in the past. He searches for his identity and role in family and school, but figures his most important role is to get people out of the auditorium.
- Sylv: Sister to Tomas and girlfriend interest to Autumn, Tyler’s sister. She is torn between her role at home and her dreams. She will face Tyler to protect both Autumn and Tomas.
- Autumn: Tyler’s sister and skilled dancer who takes verbal and physical abuse from their father ever since their mother’s death. She must deal with her feelings of responsibility by association. She is also willing to sacrifice herself for classmates. She still loves her brother even though he’s become this monster and wants to protect him too.
- Claire: Tyler’s ex-girlfriend. She was outside running with the track team and she and Chris run from school to find a phone to call for help. They realize the shooter is Tyler when they find his car next to the school security man’s car – the security guard is dead from a gunshot and the ammo cartridges are in Tyler’s car. Her brother Matt is inside.
- Various texts messages from students within the auditorium.
Tyler is clearly a sociopath and he enjoys being in control of those in the auditorium. It becomes clear to everyone that he is looking for specific people to shoot, but also shooting people at random so no one feels safe and Autumn places herself in a position to try and reason with her brother. The story is told from many points of view with each chapter representing a few minutes of time. It really reads fast in action and dialog, like I’m sure the chaos and confusion of a scene like this would, but also really slowly with the majority of plot and shootings occurring within 30 minutes of time. Having the time stated at each narration prolongs the fear and uncertainty of victims and how each second would focus on breathing, the sound of one’s own heartbeat, or hearing every snicker from Tyler like seconds ticking away. The world stops in that auditorium and Nijkamp successfully covers this heavy, delicate topic and how teenagers would react. The loss and shock is covered as well as anger and confusion.
“Together we could be so strong, but the gun has made us individuals”
This story is more than an overly dramatic scene or imaginative school shooting, and it is written with sensitivity, but also shows the darkness to a mentally unstable person like Tyler. Adults in the assembly try to rationalize with an irrational Tyler, only to result in being picked off one by one. There is both a method and randomness to Tyler’s victims and throughout the story, we learn about the previous relationships among the classmates. They all are focused around the sense of family, whether their own, their missing family, or the family that develops in a positive high school experience with peers and teachers. It also delves into serious topics of parents and children, and when the children sometimes take on the parental role; abuse at the hands of a parent; sibling relationships; bullying; sexual identities; sexual assault; and being an outsider in a small town. The different narrators feel different levels of responsibility, believing “if only” situations then they could have prevented the shooting. Some are brave in trying to stop him or find their sibling, most are just compassionate and scared. It’s very sad to read [obviously], but all face a sense of loss whether losing a loved one, their dreams, or their lives. Tyler’s actions are devastating right up to the end.
This is a story that breaks you heart for the school shooting aspect, of course, but makes one realize just how senseless crimes like these are and how we treat one another is important. Nijkamp never claims to look into the psychology of killing or go into Tyler’s reasoning. This is a book that shows what it is like for other people to live through (or not) a tragedy. There are a variety of characters and their responses to not only the shooter, but the shooter’s sister, are honest. This isn’t a psychological thriller. It’s a sad story and an example of a mutli-person point of view telling of a tragedy. It also shows that no one person could prevent Tyler’s actions, but characters come together to help as many students as they can, even in the last few minutes of death. As with real tragedies, this book doesn’t wrap up into a nice ending. Just because the shooting has stopped, doesn’t mean the pain and fear are over. However, people will survive and in a Gone With The Wind realization they know that ‘tomorrow is another day’.