School violence, from the events of Columbine to the more recent Newtown shooting, and the 31 school shootings in between (Shen), is prevalent in American society. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of these crimes are often not noticed – and therefore, never taken care of – prior to the attacks; because the signs of their worsening mental state are gradual, the people around them fail to help – they believe that there is time for the children to change. The concept of school violence in relationship to the fatality of the belief that “there’s plenty of time to prepare” is frequent in everyday life, but it is also shown in the novel Empire Falls by Richard Russo.
School violence in the novel is shown specifically through John Voss, the boy who is befriended by Tick but bullied by the rest of his peers. At the end of the novel, John comes to school after disappearing for five days, pulls a gun out of his bag, and opens fire, killing three people. He then attempts to shoot himself, but the one bullet left in the gun does not fire. As with many criminals of this sort, John Voss has a long history of physical and emotional abuse. When Tick Roby meets John, she is well aware that he is subject to frequent bullying. She notes that he, by being “friendless, voiceless, and graceless has become the target of lunchroom bullies who consider it fine sport to hit him in the back of the head”(Russo 177). She also knows he has absolutely no friends, unique from the other losers of the school because of this fact. After witnessing more and more of the taunting directed at John, she considers the situation: “She should do something, she knows, for John Voss’s sake, but… if he won’t do anything in his own defense, why should she?”(384). This shows perfectly how, although she senses that something should be done, she convinces herself that she does not actually need to help. She, along with her classmates, do not realize that soon, he will crack; they believe that there is plenty of time before that happens, and because of this, they are not ready for the eventual breakdown of John Voss.
Tick is still a child, but the adults of Empire Falls do not recognize the urgency of the situation either. Prior to the shooting, Principal Meyer, while investigating John’s disappearance, discovers in one of the school files that during his childhood, John’s parents would “stuff him into a laundry bag, pull the string tight, and hang him on the back of the closet door… sometimes they’d forget… and leave him hanging there all night” (403). Had the principal paid closer attention to the boy prior to his disappearance, he would have seen the terrors that John had withstood as a child, and he may have been able to reach out to him or get help. However, he does nothing of the sort; instead of buckling down on the search for the boy, recognizing that anyone in this situation might be pushed to an unstable mental condition and therefore become a threat to the town, he pushes it to the side. He is unwilling to accept that John Voss’s situation is dire, and he chooses to believe that there will be time before anything drastic occurs. Another adult is Miles Roby, who, when Principal Meyer mentions, “The kids all love to pick on him for some reason”(259), makes no move to help John. Miles notes the helplessness and obvious troubled mentality of the boy, but he decides not to think much of it. He, just like Meyer, believes that John’s affairs will resolve themselves, and because John’s situation is building up slowly, both Meyer and Miles are not prepared for the shooting that occurs.
Literature is often based on the apparent truths in real life, and this novel is no different. In a 2001 BookPage interview, Richard Russo stated that the character of John Voss and the circumstances surrounding him had been portrayed in the way that they were for a reason:
“The bigger thing was that since the shootings in Paducah, I had been thinking about the pressures that kids are under. As a father of two daughters, I had been dwelling… on the question that everybody always asks after a school shooting and then promptly forgets — why? The problem is that there are so many answers and so many sociological reasons for it… Novels are in a unique position to explore something like this in a way that hits home” (Mudge).
The Paducah shooting he referred to was that of 1997 in Heath High School of West Paducah, Kentucky. The perpetrator, Michael Carneal, was a 14 year old high school student who opened fire on a prayer circle in the school, killing three and injuring five others. Like John Voss, Carneal had, prior to the shooting, shown signs of mental illness. He was often bullied, fitting the “loner” stereotype of his high school, and he acted out because of it. “His small size made him a frequent target of teasing and occasional bullying, although he was also known for teasing others himself” (Moore 136). In addition to harassing others, he showed his increasingly disturbed mental state in other ways: he stole things and sold them at school, including hundred dollar bills from his father’s wallet and CDs from the local stores; he visited sites that featured instructions for making weapons and videos of violent attacks; and his school essays soon “began to reflect a fixation with violence” (137). Regrettably, his teachers, parents, and friends did not pay attention to these slowly mounting yet obvious signs. They, like the characters of Empire Falls, were under the impression that there would be time for Carneal to change. It sadly took the events of the 1997 shooting for the people in Carneal’s life to realize the enormity of the situation.
These violent situations, both fictional, in Empire Falls, and real, in Paducah, could have been stopped. Unfortunately, there were too many bystanders, too many people assuming that there would be time to plan and make changes before a disaster occurred. These people are not necessarily at fault, however, as things that develop slowly often cause people to be caught off guard. “Slow” works under the fraudulent perception that there is time to prepare.
Moore, Mark H., et al. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2003.
Mudge, Alden. “Richard Russo renders timely portrait of American life.” BookPage. BookPage, May 2001. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
Russo, Richard. Empire Falls. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001. Print.
Shen, Aviva. “A Timeline Of Mass Shootings In The US Since Columbine.” Think Progress. 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.