School Violence in Empire Falls
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.
Entrapment and Escape in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls
At first glance, the settings of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls are wildly different. What could Proulx’s bleak Mockingburg and remote Newfoundland possibly have in common with Russo’s decaying Empire Falls and picturesque Martha’s Vineyard? Upon deeper inspection, however, the locations in the novels parallel each other. Portrayed vividly and populated with casts of unforgettable characters, they serve as much more than backdrops for their respective plots. Because the places that flawed protagonists Quoyle and Miles live in are either of entrapment or escape, they are instrumental in shaping the development of these characters. This progression occurs in three stages, beginning with the men trapped within their lives, transitioning to a period of temporary escape on islands, and culminating in more permanent escape and personal fulfillment where they now call home.
The novels begin with a palpable sense of confinement. Both men are stuck in ruts in their small towns, feeling as if they are waiting for something but unsure if it will ever appear. In Mockingburg, New York, Quoyle of The Shipping News watches television in his rented trailer and works as a cheap reporter for the local newspaper, periodically getting fired and rehired by his boss. Just north in Empire Falls, Maine, Miles Roby is going on fifteen years as manager of the Empire Grill. He is still standing by for wealthy owner Mrs. Whiting to die so that the business will finally pass to him, “an event Miles continued to anticipate without, somehow, being able to imagine it” (Russo 23). Not only are the lives of Quoyle and Miles stagnant, but they are also restricted by old loves; or, more accurately, loves in the process of becoming old. Quoyle is angered by his unfaithful wife, Petal Bear, but confused as to why he still has feelings for her. These “circumstances enclosed him like the six sides of a metal case” (Proulx 17). Miles’s situation is hardly better, as a divorce is in progress with his wife, Janine, but he does not know if it is what he wants. Finally, the protagonists are trapped by their devotion to their daughters. Quoyle wants to do what is best for young Bunny and Sunshine, both of whom he loves passionately but “with a kind of fear” that harm will come to them in Mockingburg (Proulx 23). Miles desires the same for his own daughter, Tick. When criticized for raising Tick in Empire Falls, he cannot see a way out: “Maybe I was wrong to come back, but I’ve got Tick now, and I can’t put her in jeopardy. I won’t” (Russo 118). Like Quoyle, he is aware that his hometown impacts his family; what he does not know is how to improve the situation. Neither of the main characters is where he wants to be in life, but each feels so restricted in his town that change seems impossible.
Eventually, there are breaking points in the novels when Quoyle and Miles have to escape, if only temporarily, from this shared sensation of entrapment. Their flights to the islands of Newfoundland and Martha’s Vineyard, respectively, serve the sole purpose of getting away. Quoyle packs up and leaves with his daughters and aunt, Agnis Hamm, after a series of misfortunes: he loses his job again; his parents commit joint suicide; and Petal Bear is killed in a car crash. The abrupt move back to the place his family came from is not his idea but Agnis’, and the overwhelmed Quoyle comments that he merely “needed something to brace against” (Proulx 31). Similarly, Miles vacations with Tick not completely of his own volition but because his mother used to do the same with him when was he was a kid. His brother, David, astutely observes: “The sad part is that you don’t love Martha’s Vineyard. It was Mom who loved it . . . You were just a little boy who tagged along, who got to ride in the little yellow sports car. And you’re still that little boy.” (Russo 224) Miles is behaving as a child would, scampering off to a nostalgic safe haven for two weeks and hoping his problems will resolve themselves in his absence. Due to the naive natures of their decisions, neither Miles nor Quoyle is able to find comfort in his new setting. Quoyle is a foreigner in his new job at the Gammy Bird newspaper and in Newfoundland in general: “[The paper] gave Quoyle an uneasy feeling, the feeling of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn’t know. Nothing like the Record. He didn’t know how to write this stuff.” (Proulx 63) It seems he has simply substituted one life’s isolation for another. Miles shares this sensation of disappointment, for he comes back from Martha’s Vineyard not rejuvenated but “haunted by a profound feeling of personal failure” (Russo 102). Like Quoyle, he goes to his island for a change of scene, but that is not enough to grant peace of mind.
Time proves to be the only remedy for the protagonists, who must undergo more tests of character before finding the permanent escape and personal fulfillment they seek. Quoyle and Miles eventually learn that the reason makes all the difference; when they start escaping not from something awful but toward something better, something changes. The second time Miles takes Tick to Martha’s Vineyard, he goes to give her a fresh start and chance to recover after the shooting at her school. Going to the island for his daughter’s sake is a vast improvement over going to attempt to relive his own childhood memories. Quoyle, too, manages to let go of his past and instead look forward to the future, acknowledging that “[h]is part in life seemed richer” upon doing so (Proulx 136). Their shifts in attitude also completely change how the men view themselves. Miles starts seeing himself as a successful parent instead of a failed businessman, remarking that “seeing Tick alive and well was enough to confirm his sense that his best destiny in life was as this child’s father” (Russo 468-69). Likewise, Quoyle’s opinion of his physical build changes dramatically. Previously ashamed of his body and the way he towered over everyone else, to the point that he acquired the habit of hiding his chin behind his hand, he now sees his features in a positive light: “[T]he effect was more of strength than obesity. He guessed he was at some prime physical point. Middle age not too far ahead, but it didn’t frighten him” (Proulx 327). Newfoundland has transformed him. For the first time since going to the islands, Quoyle and Miles find both long lasting relief within their escapes and what has been missing in their lives. For Miles, his restorative time with Tick on Martha’s Vineyard puts the final puzzle piece in place; he realizes he does not need to hide there anymore. He must return to his life in Empire Falls, and he remarks with the same astuteness of David before him that it is “[b]etter to be a man there . . . than a boy here” (Russo 472). As for Quoyle, it means he effectively wakes up and starts living: “Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do.” (Proulx 336) He, like Miles, has come to terms with himself by the end of the novel and learned to embrace what his hometown previously locked away from him. The healing power of the islands is realized at last when Quoyle and Miles are ready to accept it.
Despite one’s first impressions, the The Shipping News and Empire Falls are remarkably similar. Proulx and Russo manage to craft two endearingly flawed protagonists who embark on personal journeys and emerge different men. These transformations would not be possible without the settings of the novels, which act as characters unto themselves and play significant roles in the progression of the plots. Mockingburg and Empire Falls, Quoyle and Miles’ respective hometowns, begin as places of entrapment. They suspend the men in their lives, leaving them conflicted between old loves and their beloved daughters. Then Proulx and Russo provide them with temporary relief in the form of Newfoundland and Martha’s Vineyard, but these retreats prove empty. Finally, after Quoyle and Miles discover their purposes for escape, these same islands offer them the fulfillment they have sought all along.