So begins Francine Prose’s topical YA novel, After. The novel’s narrator, 16-year-old, Tom, is in Math class when his father calls to let him know about a school shooting at Pleasant Valley, a school about 50 miles away. The killing spree at the neighbouring high school was perpetrated by three students, two boys and a girl, students who “never even registered as blips on the other kids’ radar.”
It’s almost impossible not to immediately think about Columbine. I remember exactly where I was when the entire continent was riveted to the tv screen watching the events in Littleton, Colorado unfold. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had planned to kill hundreds of their classmates and teachers that day, April 20, 1999. They’d been planning the massacre for months. In the end, 12 students and one teacher were dead and so were Klebold and Harris.
The fictional killing spree at Pleasant Valley costs five students, and three teachers their lives. Fourteen more students are critically injured. All the shooters killed themselves. It’s a pretty dramatic opening.
But it isn’t actually what After is about. At first, Prose’s novel seems to be about how Tom’s school reacts to the events at Pleasant Valley. First of all, the school board hires a grief and crisis counselor, Dr. Willner. “We can no longer pretend to ourselves that it can’t happen here,” Dr. Willner says to the student body at an assembly. “And so we must change our lifestyle to keep our community safe and make sure that it won’t happen.”
Things start to go south for Tom and his friends after that. The school installs a metal detector, students aren’t allowed to wear the colour red or have cell phones. Certain books are banned for being subversive. All of these things make excellent talking points, actually. How much freedom should students have? Where is the line in the sand between safety and a police state? Then, there seems to be something even more sinister happening and for me the book veered off into territory which was less interesting to me.
Still, I liked After. It asks some compelling questions and Tom is a likeable and sympathetic hero.