Survivors’ Guilt 101

Teen Novel Explores the Aftermath of an Explosion

Golden wasn’t supposed to be on Bus 21.

Yet she ended up one of four survivors of the bomb that reduced that New York City bus to a shriveled mass of metal and broken glass. Nineteen others perished.

It hasn’t even been a year since the explosion, but a medic from that day has turned the remnants into an art installation, with a request for donations to a college scholarship fund for the surviving quartet. He hopes Golden, Chan, Rudy and Caroline will come to the unveiling if they’re open to it.

Golden–known as Go to her boyfriend Chan–isn’t at all sure she wants to attend. She still caroms between emotions, secretly watching the medic’s documentary on the bus with her grandmother, and then rabbiting from school when an emergency drill requires students to board buses.

But in the midst of a Facebook chat with Rudy about how they’ve each grappled with their memories of the bombing, Go decides to, well, go.

Photo of Courtney Stevens by Carla Lafontaine

Courtney Stevens’ Four Three Two One is part survivors’ tale, part coming-of-age novel, all compulsively readable. Stevens steers well clear of maudlin prose and teachable moments to depict an array of responses to the disaster from her four teen protagonists.

While Go vacillates between facing what happened and avoiding it, Chan falls squarely in the latter category. He’s happy to live out his days in the safety of the Hive, the Kentucky commune in which their families live.

Go messaged Rudy online after the accident, but he only answers after the exhibit and scholarship fund is announced. She quickly finds herself torn between her feelings for Chan, who shuts down any talk of that fateful day, and Rudy, who flirted with her briefly that day before they got on Bus 21. Caroline, meanwhile, finds herself rooted in grief, loss and guilt, as it was her boyfriend who blew apart the bus.

No spoilers here as to how it all sorts out. But “Four” resonates on many levels, particularly the different ways the survivors grapple with the truth of what happened.

Stevens fills her writing with quips and banter. So even though she’s exploring dark themes, these are entertaining teens to be around. Think shades of Amy Sherman-Palladino:

“I knew a boy I’d met twice handed me noise-reduction headphones during a fireworks show,” Go marvels of Rudy’s thoughtfulness, just after she and friend Becky make an impromptu road trip to his Orlando home.

“And I knew I was still terrified of buses.

“We passed (the bar), and Becky ran out of grace. ‘Those fireworks. That was some show,’ she said in a way that was 90 percent Charlotte’s Web and 10 percent asshole.”

She provides the perfect amount of leavening to keep a weighty story from bogging down.

The best fiction gives shape and voice to uniquely human experiences. In her tale, Stevens elucidates universal relationship challenges. And at a time when school shootings are sadly not a rarity, everyone will find much to unpack in “Four” about trauma and its aftermath.

(Harper Collins, November 13, 2018)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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