Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, Only Child, broke my heart. I read an advance reading copy of it in November 2017, but the book didn’t publish until February 6, 2018. It takes as its subject the wake of a school shooting, following one family through their grief, loss, anger, and inability to cope with the enormity of their feelings. While the author seemed to use circumstances from the Sandy Hook shooting as a jumping off point for exploring the emotional aftermath, this book immediately took on new immediacy when the Parkland, FL, school shooting took place less than one week after it was published.
Zach Taylor is the young narrator of our book, and he’s in first grade when his teacher rounds up his class to hide in the cloakroom. POP POP POP. He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he’s scared every time he hears POP POP POP. Once the police arrive, things get really chaotic for young Zach and his classmates; they’re herded out of the school to a small church to wait for their families, but now the police officers are yelling at them, barking orders for them not to turn around and look at anything, and in general making the situation even scarier.
When Zach learns that his older brother Andy died in the shooting, his first thought is one of relief. You see, Andy was always loud and mean to Zach, so Zach thinks that finally he can be happy, that family meals will be peaceful, that mommy and daddy won’t yell at each other so much either, now that Andy’s uncontrollable mood swings won’t be disrupting the family. He’s still trying to process the happy potential of being an only child while his parents fall apart, clearly incapable of taking care of Zach in the face of their overwhelming grief.
Once Zach finally does grasp what it will actually mean to be an only child, the reader’s heart breaks all over again for him. He doesn’t have the language skills or emotional intelligence to understand the feelings of guilt to which his family abandons him; his mother has been hospitalized for hysteria and his father is so incapacitated that he barely notices that Zach is in desperate need of attention. Even Zach’s grandmother, who comes to stay with them, doesn’t know how to be there for Zach, so he tries to cope in his own limited way: he builds a hideout in Andy’s closet, draws pictures, and models his behavior on what he imagines his heroes Jack and Annie from The Magic Treehouse series would do.
While there were times when reading this book last fall that I felt the author was verging on being emotionally manipulative, in retrospect I don’t see it that way at all. Like the young narrator of Emma Donoghue’s amazing novel, Room, the author uses a childish perspective to great effect, casting light on the emotional horrors of a situation without ever being graphic. One could argue that the limited perspective is even more successful for building readerly empathy, as we are required to fill in more blanks on our own with what Zach leaves unsaid and unobserved.
It’s difficult to imagine that a book depicting a school shooting and the effects it has on both family and community can end with hope or forgiveness; Navin doesn’t push the envelope that far, but she lays the groundwork for redemption and understanding, which is more realistic, and she lets a little child lead them. Navin’s accomplishment in creating Zach as narrator stands shoulder to shoulder with Room, as I mentioned before, and with the narrator from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, creating an indelible voice poised perfectly to direct the story, allowing the reader to see life from a distinctly different perspective. I recommend this book highly.