CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 29. . . .April 1, 2016
Trapped in the boys' bathroom during a lockdown while a gunman roams the high school's halls, five students face not only death but also their personal truths and fears in their own heroes' journeys. In Shooter, Governor General's Literary Award-winning author Caroline Pignat ramps up the tension and delves deeply into the minds of teenagers to create an exciting and profound drama.
At first, the teens think it's only another lockdown drill. Rather than be caught in the hallways, they lock themselves in the washroom. There is Alice, the quirky and shy writer who has taken responsibility for her older, autistic brother, Noah; Isabelle is the popular, high-achieving student council president who is cracking under the weight of expectations; Hogan is an ex-football star who blames himself for a tragedy that devastated his family; Xander is the social misfit who hides behind a camera and can't help telling brutal truths.
Told in five voices, using poetry, prose, text messages, journals and homework assignments, Shooter gradually reveals the truths behind the teens' stories as they wait for the principal to knock reassuringly on the door, telling them the lockdown drill is over. Then Isabelle gets a text that changes everything: OMG Izzy NOT A DRILL! There's a SHOOTER in the building!!!
The action takes place over the period of an hour. Sections of the novel are introduced by a time countdown that adds the effect of a bomb about to explode. Yet under the fear and crackling tension, the young people reveal their backstories, sometimes to each other, sometimes through private reflection or notes.
Isabelle, an adopted Chinese girl with Caucasian parents, tries desperately to maintain her achievements and move to the next level, even though every time she achieves something, the bar moves higher. When she receives the dreaded email from Queens University that starts with "We regret...", her charmed life starts to look disturbingly full of problems. Her boyfriend has cheated on her with her best friend, and her busy professional parents have no time or inclination to nurture a girl who churns out success. Isabelle' brittle facade begins to crumble.
Hogan (known as "Hulk") has already fallen from his pedestal. He was once a promising football player who lived constantly under the shadow of his older brother, Randy. Their unrelenting rivalry leads to bitter sibling battles until a final fight after a game that leaves Hogan lost and angry. Through the course of the novel, we learn of Hogan's past infatuation with Isabelle and his growing interest in Alice. In the crucible of the lockdown, Hogan is able to let go of his anger and start on the road to forgiveness -- of himself as well as others -- and discover his own strength.
Alice forms the emotional core of the novel. Abandoned by her mother and determined never to abandoned her intense, sometimes violent, brother, Alice feels invisible. Alice and Noah live with their grandmother who struggles to carry on the family business as a dog breeder and kennel manager. Alice cares for Noah at school and at home and helps out her grandmother. She is a talented writer but doesn't even consider accepting the prestigious offer of entrance to UBC's Creative Writing program because she has subsumed her needs into those of her family. She sees no alternative. She will care for Noah as she has promised, but she wonders who will care about her.
Noah is particularly well-drawn. Pignat's life as a high school teacher and her research into special needs education in the modern inclusive high school demonstrate a deep understanding of the behaviours and challenges of an autistic young man. From the pictograms that shape his daily routines to the close relationship with his educational assistant, to the ritualistic verbal and physical quest for recognizable patterns, Noah is a fully realized character. When Alice breaks out of the bathroom to find him, knowing the alarm would drive him to a breakdown, she and Hogan bring Noah -- and all of his unpredictable violence and fixations -- into the mix.
Xander also has trouble reading social cues. Though he is nowhere near as dysfunctional as Noah, he is definitely missing "filters", as counsellors call it. A loner with an eye for truth, Xander has been kicked off the Yearbook photography staff for taking photos around the school of moments that are true, but painful. Isabelle, who is of course the yearbook editor, was instrumental in getting Xander fired because of a deeply painful personal moment he captured of her. A particularly visual element of the novel revolves around the photographs of the other characters that Xander pulls out of his backpack. But there's more to the boy than the camera he hides behind, and as we read his "Writer's Craft journals" and his "Social Autopsies" written for his counsellor, we learn that his yearning for friendship has led him into dark places.
The complexity of the characters does not prevent the story from holding its shape and, for the most part, its tension. The countdown to disaster builds momentum effectively, and the quick back-to-back entries in the last few minutes create an action-packed conclusion. There are a few moments, particularly from Alice and Hogan, when they sound disproportionately adult and narrator-like, but overall, the characters' voices are distinct and true. Though the flashback style and multiple narratives may confuse or frustrate teen readers accustomed to a more chronological narrative, I know from my own high school library that teens are fascinated by the drama of lockdown drills and news stories of school shootings; they will snap this novel up.
In the process, they will discover this is much more than an action novel. The characters reveal many of the pressures and difficulties of modern high school students. Driven by guilt, family pressure, personality disorders, and the vagaries of powerful emotion, kids juggle complicated demands. Shooter explores the intensity and the personal costs of those demands on very realistic characters. And though they do not emerge from their ordeal unscarred, each of them finds a resolution that is deeply satisfying without being falsely sweet. The book also has surprising moments of humour, (Hulk charging through the crowd in purple boxers comes to mind), hints of romance and the promise of friendship.
In her novels, Caroline Pignat has explored a wide range of experiences of young people, from the slave fields of the southern United States to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland to Irish migration to North America. In Shooter, she sets her story in the here and now for Canadian teenagers, but once again she strikes a chord of deep concern for young people. Pignat has created a pitch perfect combination of multiple modes, well-tuned voices and a irresistible and satisfying story.
Wendy Phillips is a teacher-librarian in Richmond, BC, and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award-winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.
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