“Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.”
My Thoughts: Every book I read and enjoy emotionally draws me into its story in some form. Whether it is through an increase in adrenaline or a sense of longing, great stories always push my emotional buttons. Yet, it takes a lot for a book to make me cry. After the thousands of books I have read in my lifetime, I would estimate that maybe ten, definitely no more than twenty, books have caused me to shed tears while reading them. Some books have made me feel like crying, but rarely do I cross over into full-on tears. Only Child by Rhiannon Navin is now among the rarest of the rare in that this poignant story about a little boy trying to make sense of his new world after experiencing a school shooting made me cry.
Only Child is a novel I want to send to every senator and every representative in Washington, D.C. because it would make them think twice about only offering “thoughts and prayers” after the almost-daily school shootings we have these days. Zach makes for a compelling narrator. The story he tells would make those politicians understand that gun control is necessary to avoid other children experiencing the same turmoil.
Zach’s world is so simple. He loves his mother and father. He has a love-hate relationship with his brother. He loves his trucks and his books and the little rituals that make his world safe and comfortable. He knows right from wrong, and he understands the importance of feelings. This all makes the confusion and fear in which he now lives all the more disheartening. He is a keen observer but because he does not understand the nuances of adult relationships he remains free of bias and innuendo. All he knows is how something or someone makes him feel; that is more than enough for us to understand the devastation among families affected by such tragedies.
For those concerned about the topic, the shooting happens off-screen. Zach is telling the story, so we only see what he sees and hear what he hears. As such, Only Child is very much an emotional novel, as we experience Zach’s fears in the coat closet and watch him wrestle with the changes in his parents, teacher, and other adults after the event. Later, we see him trying to make sense of his own roiling emotions as everything he knew as safe and familiar changes. However, as Zach is not a witness to any of the shootings, there are no violent scenes about which to worry.
What makes Only Child so powerful a story is the fact that due to his age, Zach is able to cut through all of the bullshit of being an adult to remind you of what is truly important. He can cut through it because he does not recognize it. His simple world allows him to remain focused on the importance of family, love, and support. At many times throughout the story, his reception of words meant to comfort him or put him at ease have the opposite effect. This has the chilling impact of causing you to pause and reconsider every single time you have ever spoken to your child and thought you were relaying love, comfort, and understanding when really your tone of voice and distracted manner said otherwise. Zach reminds us all that we do not give our children enough credit for understanding our world and proof that our children know us more than we realize.
Only Child is profoundly tragic and upsetting but not in the way one would think given the story. The school shooting is simply a catalyst for the rest of his story and its painful beauty. Zach’s continued innocence, especially after every parent’s greatest nightmare, is a testament to his fortitude, physical and mental. It is easy to fall in love with this very special little boy even as he symbolizes hundreds, if not thousands, of siblings across the country forced to endure something he does not fully comprehend let alone understand. Ms. Navin also makes it easy to forget that he is a fictional character, so authentic is his voice and genuine his feelings.
There is not doubt that Ms. Navin carefully crafted Only Child to avoid it becoming yet another school shooting story. Everything about it downplays the event to shine the spotlight on the aftershocks of it. It involves more than one heavy topic but Ms. Navin tells her story with such delicacy that the horror of the event quickly fades into a more muted dismay at the fallout of the tragedy. This care also extends to Zach’s voice, which strikes the right balance between age and wisdom. Even the cover, which I once thought beyond ugly, has meaning. Once you realize what that is, you realize its perfection as the picture that defines the story.
Only Child is more than a story about a family attempting to recover after a tragedy. It is more than the tragedy itself. It is the proverbial mirror held up to society at large to allow us to see our shortcomings within our relationships and interactions with each other. It is the cautionary tale warning us that we are losing the details when we focus on the larger picture and that it is the details where we obtain our happiness and peace. It is a reminder that the children really are our future and that we adults could do well to not only take care of them but learn from them. It is a story of loss and despair and love and hope, and it is so beautiful that it moved me to tears.