Warning – do not read this book if you are already feeling tearful, emotionally vulnerable or a little shaky inside. It’s the story of a teacher, the pupils of Broken Branch high school, a police woman and the parents and grandparents who anxiously wait outside as a gunman holds their loved ones hostage. Unless you are stony hearted it will make you cry – quite a lot judging by my experience.
Told from different perspectives, the book opens with a desperate phone call from Augie to her mother, Holly. The child is hiding in a cupboard in the school. The mother is in a hospital bed, thousands of miles away, recovering from third degree burns and lamenting the fact that she has no option but to send Augie and her brother PJ back to Broken Branch to the care of their grandparents. We then backtrack to the events leading up to the phone call, gradually learning more about Holly’s accident, her relationship with her own estranged parents and about the children’s fathers, one of whom is soon in the frame as the potential identity of the, as yet unnamed, gunman.
Also a suspect is the father of Augie’s best friend Beth, whose wife has recently kicked him out after enduring years of domestic violence. Beth’s convinced her father is the one responsible for the entire school being in lock down so when she and Augie get the chance to leave their classroom and look for the gunman they seize the opportunity, Augie motivated by a need to find and protect her brother. Meanwhile, Mrs Oliver, dedicated lifelong teacher on the verge of retiring is racking her brains to recall all the past students she may have upset and who might be the man stood in her classroom now, wielding a gun and intent on revenge. Refusing to abandon her young charges, she sacrifices her own safety all the while hoping her own children and her husband will forgive her actions.
Outside the snow is falling more heavily, blocking roads, jamming communications and making it impossible for the tactical unit experienced in hostage situations to make it to Broken Branch. The parents gathered in Lonnie’s café want answers, the media descended on the town want their story, and the local farmers have turned up toting rifles and set on storming the school building in the face of what they see as police inaction.
Police woman Megan is counting blessings that her own daughter Maria isn’t in class but has gone to visit her father for a few days. Until, that is, she learns that her ex is now considered a prime suspect, as the man in the school starts asking for her by name. With so many lives hanging in the balance, Megan anxiously makes her way down corridors, past a pool of blood, to confront the gunman and try to talk him down. He, meanwhile, doesn’t understand why things have not gone according to plan. Why the post Columbine procedures that are meant to be followed by every school and police force in the country appear to have been ignored, thwarting his purpose and making him all the more desperate.
Gudenkauf captures each distinct voice beautifully, articulating a range of emotions and mapping the various and frail aspects of our human relationships. The most powerful though does not belong to an individual, it belongs to regret and ONE BREATH AWAY almost throbs with a sense of “if only” as the characters reflect on the choices they’ve made and how things might have been different. Simple, clear prose allows Gudenkauf to build atmosphere and tension without melodrama or any of the feel of a typical thriller. Her real triumph though is in conveying how easily lives can be shattered, despite our enormous resilience and potential for courage. In debunking the very idea of a happy ending. And in reminding us that life really is too short. That’s at the nub of what made my cry. You have been warned.