By Elizabeth Crook
Sarah Crichton Books
340 pages, $26
By Gene Warner
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“Monday, Monday – can’t trust that day.”
Those of us old enough to remember that Mamas and Papas classic from the 1960s still can hum along in our minds. But the soft, lyrical melody masked the angry tone that would be heard in the protest songs of the turbulent ’60s and early ’70s, even if the target here was something as benign as the end of the weekend.
And so it was on that horrible day, Monday, Aug. 1, 1966, when an ex-Marine named Charles Whitman climbed atop the University of Texas tower in Austin and began a random shooting spree at pedestrians below, killing 16 people and wounding 32.
Far more people remember the Mamas and Papas than Charles Whitman. But this was a singular event in the troubled ’60s, described by some as America’s first modern-day, peacetime, mass shooting on public soil.
Elizabeth Crook has woven a novel, of all things, out of that day’s tragedy, and before you scoff at that notion, consider that this is an extremely effective way to get into the minds of random victims of mass shootings.
The main character, Shelly Maddox, is sitting in math class in summer school one morning, totally befuddled by the concept of “i,” the square root of minus-1, just moments before she’s wounded by one of Whitman’s rounds. Two men she’s never met, cousins Wyatt Calvert and Jack Stone, help save her, establishing a bond that never can be broken.
As she recovers from her physical wounds, the mental scars remain, leaving her still wounded and lonely. “No one she knew had any idea what it was like to have a bullet through your breast and your arm, and she didn’t want to explain,” the author writes. “Wyatt Calvert and Jack Stone were the only people who could ever understand what it was like out there on the plaza.”
Then one day, Shelly exposes her wound, her disfigured breast, to Wyatt. It becomes the ultimate statement that she has nothing to hide from him. And it binds her forever to him and his cousin.
That leads to a soap opera full of events among the three characters. But the strength of this book lies in the psychological look at the effects of the mass shooting on the characters drawn together by it.
One day, Shelly confides to a younger woman that she had been shot and then saved by two men, one of whom also was badly wounded.
“Did he die?” the younger woman asked.
“No,” Shelly replied.
“And did you make your peace with it in your mind?”
“I guess the only way I made peace with it was to quit trying to make sense of it.”
Shelly also has to ponder what role fate played in her being wounded. Why did the deranged Whitman pick her, out of hundreds of people crossing the campus that day? The older she became, the more she felt she had some hand in that matter, that some action of hers had put her in Whitman’s crosshairs.
“It seemed better than being a luckless victim of fate,” the author writes.
The University of Texas shootings, of course, came long before CNN and the Internet. If a tragedy of that magnitude occurred today, we’d be subjected to thousands of interviews and essays and psychological profiles about the victims and what they went through.
But all that coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, even the most artful and inspiring stories about the Boston Strong victims, provide no more insights than this book does about the inner thoughts and bonds created when madmen reach out to destroy others.
So this book, recast as a novel about a mass murder 48 years ago this summer, may help explain the mindsets of surviving victims from Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and the like.
Western New York has its own survivor with a similar view. Army Major Patrick Miller, the Allegany native wounded in the Fort Hood shootings in April, has discussed the way that attack created a permanent bond among his fellow survivors.
“Unfortunately, we share that bond,” he told reporters while back home in early July. “We’re going to have that for the rest of our lives. I’m there for them, and they’re there for me.”
Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.