Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, Only Child, tells the story of a family and a community whose lives are changed when a gunman enters a local school and kills 19 people.
Yes, it is a novel about a school shooting. Yes, we follow a family in the wake of a child’s death. Yes, I cried while editing it.
This novel—like all excellent novels that tackle difficult subjects—reminded me that we are living in an era in which gun violence has become a commonplace occurrence. And that it affects the survivors as well as the victims—that it affects entire communities.
As I write this, there have already been 11 school shootings in 2018 (and it is still only February). But last month’s shootings barely made the headlines. Instead we were treated to headlines about “Sloppy Steve” tweets and cheeseburgers eaten in bed. We’ve all grown so accustomed to the shootings that the shock of them seems to have worn off.
Only Child opened my eyes again and changed the way I look at the news. By reading the young narrator Zach’s reaction to events, I was able to feel and learn about what goes on behind the scenes—at school, at home, in the shooter’s family, the victims’ families—when the cameras and reporters leave and the people involved must forge a path to healing and forgiveness in the aftermath of such a horrific event.
My hope in publishing Only Child is that it will do the same for you, too. That is the magic of fiction.
I have always believed that we can learn more about people and events—both current and historical—from reading fiction than from reading nonfiction. Think of the books that have changed your life. For many of us, conversations in English class about To Kill a Mockingbird were the first time we really began to understand the true ugliness of racism and confronted our own prejudices. The Grapes of Wrath illustrates the Great Depression’s human toll. Last year’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, dives right into the horrors of slavery. The Book of Daniel, The Lovely Bones, and Room focus on children to whom unspeakably horrible things have happened. And don’t even get me started on The Bell Jar, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Sarah’s Key.
We can’t ignore the ugliest parts of our world, and we can’t ignore what is happening in our schools every single week. My wish is that Only Child will speak truth to power. “Truth to power,” a phrase coined by the Quakers during the mid-1950s as a call to stand firm against violence, has been adopted by many over the years as a call to effect a change by telling the truth (as in, for instance, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power). I believe that fiction is an essential form of truth to power.
It is difficult to publish a novel about something that is happening in the headlines today, but it is crucial. To read about school shootings in fiction can keep the conversation about gun control on the front burner. Perhaps the headlines won’t change how we deal with guns, but perhaps a story about a little boy in crisis who still manages to find beauty and hope in the wake of tragedy will.
With luck, Only Child will outlive the headlines. With luck, it will help readers who need comfort and healing. And with luck, maybe it will help us begin to face some of the demons that lurk in our own hearts. A gifted storyteller can do that.
Carole Baron is an editor at Knopf. Only Child by Rhiannon Navin was published by Knopf this month.