Published by Scholastic Press on August 28, 2018
It's been three years since the Virgil County High School Massacre. Three years since my best friend, Sarah, was killed in a bathroom stall during the mass shooting. Everyone knows Sarah's story--that she died proclaiming her faith.
But it's not true.
I know because I was with her when she died. I didn't say anything then, and people got hurt because of it. Now Sarah's parents are publishing a book about her, so this might be my last chance to set the record straight . . . but I'm not the only survivor with a story to tell about what did--and didn't--happen that day.
Except Sarah's martyrdom is important to a lot of people, people who don't take kindly to what I'm trying to do. And the more I learn, the less certain I am about what's right. I don't know what will be worse: the guilt of staying silent or the consequences of speaking up . . .
Do you remember the story of Cassie Bernall? I bet you do – she is the girl of “she said yes” fame, who was gunned down during the Columbine shooting but is more well-known for professing her devotion to God right before her death. While Columbine is now almost 20 years behind us, school shootings are more prevalent than ever, and the stakes continue to climb as gun control legislature is fought over tooth and nail by the US government.
Keplinger’s book is quite timely, right in the face of all this anxiety and uncertainty. She takes this concept – this idea of one girl becoming a martyr for her religion – and reminds us that it can still happen today. It could happen to you, your children … anyone, really.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
What if Cassie Bernall’s mom got it all wrong, and her book turned out to be built on unintentional lies? What if the person who overheard Cassie confessing her belief in God heard wrong, and those words were wrong attributed? That’s where the premise of this book draws its inspiration: what if what the world believed happened didn’t really happen?
Lee is a survivor of the shooting at Virgil County High School – she, along with five of her peers, is trying to navigate the waters of recovery the best she can, three years out. But it’s not as easy as it seems – she lost her best friend Sarah in the chaos while they were both crammed into a bathroom stall, clinging to each other. Yet from that moment burst forth a whole new movement – Sarah became a figurehead for her local church, for religion, when a rumor started circulating that she’d told the shooter she still believed in God. The only problem? Lee was right there, and Sarah didn’t ever say a word.
We walk with Lee through her recovery, and feel as if we’re there when the PTSD starts to close in over her head like an anxious ocean wave. And when Lee discovers that Sarah’s parents are planning to release a book about their daughter’s story and martyrdom, she decides enough is enough: she’s got to tell the truth. Thing is … people don’t take kindly to it when others call them wrong. A fact Lee quickly realizes when Sarah’s parents immediately oust her from their home upon hearing the truth of the situation.
Lee decides that if each survivor writes a letter, explains their side of the story, that maybe after she graduates her story will live on at Virgil County High – the true story. She is flummoxed to discover that not everyone wants to share their experience, however, and that we all have different ways of coping after such a massive incident. Lee quickly realizes that she needs to fully step up, or just sit back and let the false memories go – neither is a good idea, but what’s the moral thing to do when your best friend would hate to know she’s being held up this way?
The Bottom Line
There are some really great aspects of this book that help to differentiate it between every other school shooting YA fiction out there:
Lee is asexual, which we see come up as an issue when her senior prom arrives
One of the survivors, Denny, is both African American and blind – a unique perspective
This is perhaps my favorite of them all: we never learn the shooter’s name. Not once do we learn any identifying information about them beyond the fact that it is a male. In places where the name has been written, it’s blacked out and censored. We see so much about how we need to focus on the survivors of tragedies such as these, not the shooters – Keplinger really takes that to heart, and I appreciated it immensely.
So why only 3 1/2 stars? I liked the concept, enjoyed getting to know the characters, but I just didn’t care for Lee as a person. She was selfish and stubborn and didn’t seem to take anyone else’s emotions into account before charging into a situation. She’s not a bad person – she’s seen some shit, after all – but she’s just not that likable.
This is definitely a unique take on an unfortunately prevalent topic, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who works with teen populations, or wants to learn more about what it’s like in the aftermath of a shooting – not during.