Nothing But Life by Brent van Staalduinen

The cover of Nothing But Life by Brent van Staalduinen. The words of the title are cut out of a piece of lined school paper. An x-acto knife lies to one side.

Review by Deborah Vail

Dundurn Press, 2021

290 pages, paperback, 14.99 CDN, 9781459746183

Ages 14+, Grades 9+

Contemporary Realism

Content warning: This review contains discussions of gun violence, trauma/PTSD, and death.

I was in the Windsor High library when the shooter walked in and opened fire. I didn’t see much while it was happening. I was behind a table with my eyes closed. I heard the angry sounds of the bullets destroying everything around me. And other noises I can’t talk about.

How does a writer describe the trauma and suffering in the aftermath of a school shooting? In Nothing But Life, Brent van Staalduinen tackles difficult subject matter with bravery, sensitivity, and compassion. Told in first person, present tense, we meet Wendell Sims – Dills, as his friends and family call him – just months after the shooting, as he stands before a judge in youth court to face consequences for his own act of violence: an attack on a bully with a box cutter. The judge sentences him to 240 hours of community service at a local parkland where he is to pick up litter, and he must wear an ankle monitor that tracks his whereabouts 24 hours a day. He begins the summer isolated from his peers, battling extreme heat, swarms of mosquitos, and endless amounts of litter. All the while, he can hear his stepfather Jesse’s voice calling to him: I’m here, come see me.

For most of his life, Jesse had been Dills’ idol, a good man who loved him and his mother unconditionally. But hours after the shooting, Dills learns that Jesse was the shooter who killed his best friend and many others – and that upon entering the school, Jesse went to Dills’ classroom first.

Dills and his mother relocate to her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, to escape media attention and crushing reminders of the carnage. But trouble follows when Dills enrolls in his new school mid-year and is constantly bullied. And as Jesse languishes under heavy guard in a Windsor hospital bed after his failed attempt to take his own life after the massacre, Dills is left to make sense of what happened.

In the present, Jesse’s voice gets louder and more insistent with each passing day. Dills meets Mia, a Muslim female wrestler. She is also a misfit at his school, but no one bullies her, and Dills is intrigued. Sparks of friendship and romance begin to fly and soon Dills is confessing his past and his longing to see Jesse one more time. Mia never doubts that Jesse is speaking to him and recruits the park’s head custodian, an older man named Gal whose face is scarred by war after serving in the Israeli army. Gal owes Mia a favour and is on board with the plan to get Dills back to Windsor. But there’s the problem of the ankle monitor. Dills’ aunt, a genius computer consultant with her own interpretation of what’s right and what’s wrong, steps in and hacks into the program Dills’ probation officer uses to monitor his compliance. Rules are broken, hearts and egos get bruised, and loyalties are tested as Dills sets out with his band of supporters to face his past.

Woven through this narrative are strong themes of gun violence, PTSD, school shootings, mental illness, and death. Yet among this motley crew of endearing and authentic characters are even stronger themes of loyalty, social and personal responsibility, friendship, acceptance, and love.

This story grabbed me by the throat from page one and has stayed with me long after I finished reading the last page. The narrative is thoroughly empathetic, and although the author never glorifies Jesse’s actions, he offers a different viewpoint by inviting us into the lives of a shooter’s family after a massacre and the heart of the teenager who still loves him. Dills struggles to manage his grief for losing not just his best friend and other classmates and teachers he cared about, but also the life he had cherished while living in Windsor with his mom and Jesse.

Within the short time span since I finished reading this novel there have been several real-life mass shootings, and I found myself remembering Jesse’s recurring plea to Dills. I’m here – come see me. Brent van Staalduinen never coddles his main characters or his readers. He does not try to explain the inexplicable. Instead, he provides all the ingredients for deep reflection and conversation and lets the chips fall where they may.

It’s no surprise that Nothing But Life is receiving so much well-deserved attention. It is a must-read, not just for its YA audience, but for any adult working with teens.

The study guide that accompanies Nothing But Life is a teacher’s safety net for tackling the tough conversations about gun violence, grief, family loyalty, love, and forgiveness. It offers profound teachable moments as the world we now live in continues to spin and challenge our humanity.

Deborah Vail holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Grain Magazine, and The New Quarterly and reviews of noteworthy books in Prism, The Antigonish Review, and Young Adulting Review.

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