Few topics stoke division quite like the debate over gun rights. The year 2018 has already witnessed a bevy of shootings nationwide, at least twenty of them occurring on school grounds. Without fail, partisan lines are drawn following such events and conversation devolves into arguments over mental health, government intervention, and the Second Amendment.
The tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is no exception. On February 14, a nineteen-year-old entered the school premises and began firing a semi-automatic rifle at students and teachers. After six minutes of shooting, he had claimed the lives of seventeen and injured seventeen more. The news reignited the already volatile discussion concerning gun control and inspired large-scale activism, including student walkouts, organized marches, and the #NeverAgain movement.
As with any contentious debate, we have a tendency to quickly lose sight of humanity in favor of our politics. Ideology can travel only so far, which is why we need stories. Eight days prior to the Parkland shooting, Rhiannon Navin released her debut novel, Only Child, told from the perspective of a unique narrator.
Zach Taylor is six years old. Like any other weekday, he packs up and heads to school for another round of first-grade classes. During Miss Russell’s lesson, a gunman enters the school and begins firing. Zach, his teachers, and the rest of his classmates huddle in a supply closet until first responders arrive to usher them out of the building. When all is said and done, the gunman has extinguished the lives of nineteen victims, one of them Zach’s older brother.
Told through Zach’s eyes, the remainder of the novel follows his attempts to process the loss of his brother as both he and his parents learn how to carry on.
With gun violence taking a prominent place among headlines, the topic has become one of growing interest among contemporary fiction writers. A number of notable titles have already hit shelves this year exploring modern America’s attachment to firearms, its role in fueling impulsive judgment, and the risks it poses to future generations (see Gun Love, How to Be Safe, If We Had Known, and Oliver Loving, respectively). Yet none, to my knowledge, have done so through the lens of a child.
Navin’s narrative use of Zach sets the effects of violence and the innocence of childhood on a collision course. Rather than engaging in ideological debate, Zach likens gunshots to sounds he’s heard in a video game, makes sense of his emotions with colored pieces of paper, and turns to books for healing. His youthful gaze wrenches readers from their echo chambers to confront a host of very human concerns. Ironically, it’s the adults of the novel, like Zach’s parents, who turn to bitterness and legislation to ease their pain.
And can’t we relate? In our day in age, it’s difficult not to grow hardened to the headlines. It’s easier to remain detached and cerebral, to ignore the deeper need of forgiveness to truly heal, but Only Child doesn’t permit such ease. Instead, Zach struggles to reconcile the memory of his brother, at once an idol and a bully. He faces abandonment from his mother who shrugs off his pain as she campaigns against the parents of the shooter to ensure accountability for what their son has done. No constitutional debates or partisan divide, simply humanity.
These are the concerns at the heart of Only Child. Politics has its place, but it also has a face. At times, it appears in the form of a six-year-old child grieving the loss of his brother, and, other times, as the parents of a now-notorious school shooter. We need stories to confront us with that humanity, to shape and revise our convictions. And we need them remind us that we never grow too old to embrace the compassion of a child.
Building Your Bookshelf
Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Maggie has been married to her husband Thomas for almost two decades. However, the two wed more out of necessity than enduring love for one another, a fact that has begun to show over the course of the years. After initiating a correspondence with a poet named James, Maggie’s relationship with the artist begins to grow beyond ink and paper and results in a passionate affair that challenges her devotion to her family and her moral convictions. Quatro writes with a depth and care that transcends the surface-level tropes in so much of contemporary writing. With Fire Sermon, she has crafted a profound contemplation on marriage, desire, and faith.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú
Growing up near El Paso, Francisco Cantú developed a fascination with the border between the US and Mexico. After graduating from college with a specialized degree in border relations, he signed up to join the Border Patrol. As a fluent Spanish speaker, he was quickly added to the roster and began his career with the agency, an experience that exposed him to both the necessity and systemic harm of US border relations. The Line Becomes a River is a gripping memoir of one man’s inability to reconcile his civic responsibilities with the humanity of those harmed by his duties.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
As the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, Joseph experienced a unique upbringing. In the present day, while studying literature at Berkeley, he receives a package from his recently deceased father that plunges him into the centuries of history that have formed his family. Soon after, he departs for Cairo where he learns the legacy of his father’s line as watchmen of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue, which stands where tradition claims the child Moses was plucked from the Nile. While in Cairo, Joseph discovers the stories of Ali, the first watchman of the synagogue, and the British sisters Agnes and Margaret who traveled to Cairo in 1897 to preserve ancient texts stored at the site. Told through these interweaving timelines, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is an atmospheric journey across history, ancestry, and legend.
Cover image by Jose Alonso.