Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down by Anne Valente
Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, there have been at least 270 shootings at schools in the United States, 50 of which were mass murders or attempted mass murders. Seventeen years later, it seems like it could happen anywhere at any time. Almost any passage from the first 17 pages of Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins), puts the reader in the center of a high school under such an attack. This one is in St. Louis, where Valente grew up. Her collective third-person narrative contains elements of poetry, magical realism, and reportage — sometimes offering the reader a bird’s-eye view of the community and sometimes honing in on one of the four members of the yearbook committee: Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina.
“Nick saw his teacher’s face change, a recognition . ... She motioned everyone toward the back of the room and began pushing her bulked desk against the classroom door. John Sommers, a Trailblazers basketball guard, broke from the group to help . ... Nick heard the gunfire approach. He felt himself iced and immobile,” Valente writes. And then, a few pages later: “What Matt and Tyler heard … was Caroline Black’s scream as she left the women’s bathroom next door. As she entered the hallway. As she came upon Caleb. As she may or may not have had time to understand what was happening before three bullets from his handgun ripped through her right shoulder, her stomach, then through the frontal lobe of her brain.”
Some novelists wait until they are well into a book before writing the first chapter, but Valente told
Pasatiempo that she wrote the active shooter portion first. “I just wanted to get it out of the way,” she said. She didn’t set out to immediately hook readers with graphic violence — she wanted to be faithful to the way that such crimes are experienced. First there is terror and bloodshed, then rescuers and police arrive, and soon enough, the media shows up. “This is what we’re accustomed to. This is how we take in this kind of news — we see these details first,” she said. “But then what?” Valente reads from and signs copies of Our Hearts
Will Burn Us Down at 6 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 17, at Collected Works Bookstore, and at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where she teaches fiction and literature. Her first book was the story collection By Light We Knew Our
Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), and her short fiction has appeared in several journals and magazines, including The Kenyon Review and One Story.
“I had not really tried tackling a novel up until beginning to write this book, and I had not written much about a familiar landscape like St. Louis,” Valente said. “The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened, and I began to notice how the news focused on that for three weeks or a month, and then drifted on to other things.” She wondered what happens in such communities when the media stops watching and the rest of the country moves on, once some of the more sensational questions about perpetrators and motives have been answered. She wrote a short story to explore the topic but saw that a longer narrative was needed. Research for her novel included reading The Denver Post’s archived articles of the Columbine shooting. “I wanted to get a sense of the timeline, how it was covered days, weeks, months, and even a year after the fact.”
After the shootings in Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, which kill 28 students as well as several teachers and administrators, the houses of the victims’ families burn down one by one, with no forensic evidence of how the fires ignited. Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina meet to discuss how they can make a record of what has happened — and what is still happening — for the yearbook, unsure whether this is required of them or how they could possibly accomplish anything meaningful or appropriate. The relationships between the teenagers are poignant and realistic, as are their personal preoccupations. Nick, a research hound, throws himself into the world of online sleuthing, while Matt continually relives the memory of a dead student in the hallway and struggles to reconcile his feelings for his closeted boyfriend, Tyler. Christina is a swimmer whose older, very popular boyfriend was shot but not killed, and their relationship fractures in the wake of the terrible event. Zola, who was in the library during the shooting — the site of the worst of the carnage — retreats into herself, unable to articulate in thoughts or words what she saw or how she felt.
Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is written in an experimental vein, a mode that allows Valente to play freely with language, including passages that vary in length and style, and an unusual narrative point of view. “I’d written short stories in the collective ‘we’ before, to experiment with collective thinking and play with splitting individuals apart from that, but I didn’t know that I would write from that perspective for the length of a novel,” she said. “The reason I came to write it this way is that in contending with how I was personally reacting to the news of mass school shootings and gun violence, I was really struggling with whether it was my pain or my grief to mourn.” The characters in the novel face these issues, as does the community at large. Proximity to loss and violence — who was where and who lost whom — creates a kind of hierarchy among many of the high school students, who do not know how to comfort each other. The cause of the fires, which kill the parents of the murdered students, is apparent in the title, so the heavily symbolic mystery is for the characters to solve, while the reader knows from the start that they will never find the closure they are looking for.
“I didn’t want to write a straight realist novel about a mass shooting and what happens after that,” Valente said. “We are a culture that seeks answers, that seeks immediate response. When these events happen, we’re so focused on the motive, on some kind of tangible outcome, as if that’s going to change anything or make it easier for the families, because this keeps happening. I think that’s why I turned to something a little less tangible, a magical element, to envision what happens when there are no answers. Often, there are no answers.”