When you hear the words “school shooting,” odds are that you picture children being led from Columbine or Sandy Hook. Grieving parents. Yellow ribbons and candles.
Odds are not that you think about the people the killer left behind.
In And We Stay, Jenny Hubbard introduces us to one such survivor: Emily Beam, whose boyfriend brought a gun to school and killed himself.
Now in a boarding school in Amherst (we never know where Emily lived prior to this, aside from the name of a fictional county), Emily is rigid with survivor’s guilt. Hers has many layers, though. Paul appeared to want to kill her, he was angry with a breakup she precipitated, he was angry with decisions she made without consulting him. He was angry. Hurt. Heartbroken.
And she believes – she knows – it was all her fault.
Her roommate, KT, also suffers from survivor’s guilt, and this commonality helps bind the two girls. Emily manages to form other relationships, specifically with a wayward artist and a French teacher – but for the most part, her attempt to regain her footing and forgive herself is one she does by herself. Well, she does have some help, in the form of the ghost of Emily Dickinson.
Like Miss Dickinson, Emily Beam is a poet. She writes to help herself make sense of what happened and how she feels about it. Her poems are an outlet not just for creativity, but survival of sorts. She also reads and re-reads a collection of Dickinson’s poems, and she occasionally wonders if Dickinson’s ghost isn’t hanging around a wee bit.
Hubbard peppers the story with occasional flashbacks to Emily’s relationship with Paul and what happened the day he died. The more we know, the more we sympathize with Emily. What she suffered and witnessed was horrific, and that she is able to function at all is admirable.
While the story here is solid, it feels as if it is written to keep us all at arm’s length, which is ironic because Emily Beam struggles throughout the book to get closer to Emily Dickinson. She uses Dickinson’s poetry to help make sense of her struggles, but we are not afforded the same privilege. We want to know Emily better. Where is she from? Why is her first reaction to a piece of unsettling and potentially devastating news to tell her parents, yet she seems to pull away from them? Do they have a good relationship or not? Why does she appear to have no friends to keep in touch with from “back home”? She was a cheerleader. Was she an outcast, aside from her relationship with Paul? Yes, we understand why she doesn’t pursue friendships at her new school. But what about the hometown kids?
And what of Emily’s relationship with Paul? She seems fairly unapologetic for its outcome, yet theirs was a romance that moved at a bit of a quick clip. Emily becomes intimate with him within a matter of weeks, even though she appears to be unmoved by sex and sexuality.
Fortunately, the good outweighs the bad. Emily may keep us all at arm’s length, but she can’t stop us from caring about her. Yes, we have questions – lots of them – but we can’t blame Emily for what happened. If nothing else, we like her too much to do so.
Still, though, I would have liked to know more about her.