Sunday, August 11, 2019

Seven books from a high school class on trauma literature

Kate McQuade is the author of the story collection Tell Me Who We Were.

At LitHub she tagged seven titles from a high school class on trauma literature, including:
Anne Valente, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down

Most of the books I teach in this course have their roots, one way or another, in war or transnational terrorism. Valente’s novel is an exception, belonging to what I think of as a relatively new (and unfortunately quickly growing) subgenre of trauma literature: the American school-shooting narrative. In Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, Valente explores the aftermath of a shooting in a St. Louis suburb. The novel grapples less with cause than effect; Valente trains her focus not on what preoccupies many writers within this genre (the question of what motivated the shooter), but on how students and families cope in the aftermath, a grieving process further problematized when the victims’ houses begin burning down, one by one, at night.

Through this series of intertangled losses, we follow four student survivors—the staff of the yearbook club—tasked with memorializing those lost in the shooting. It’s the impossible assembly of this yearbook that gives the novel its sharpest metaphorical resonance, as the staffers face an immediate version of the problem we all face following catastrophe: How can we assemble a narrative that makes sense of something nonsensical? How, for that matter, can a single narrative ever suffice? As the novel progresses, yearbook entries are logged alongside medical reports, news articles, and scientific information about anatomy and fire—fact-based documents that reveal our narrators’ attempts not only to memorialize, but to understand. “We have tried to catalog the details,” the staffers confess, “. . .as if we shared the same memory, as if every student at Lewis and Clark bore the same witness. . .an attempt to archive. An attempt at futility.”

Like [Jonathan Safran] Foer’s [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close], Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down suggests that the closure we seek after tragedy is both necessary and inevitably incomplete. Valente sets up a straightforward mystery in her novel’s early pages—who is lighting the fires?—then pushes that mystery well beyond the plane of its original conception. Her novel reminds us that loss sometimes transcends the reason, logic, and fact-based methodologies we use in our attempts to find unattainable answers.
Read about another entry on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue