In the small town of Broken Branch, Iowa, everyone knows each other. There is a routine to life in Broken Branch. For Will Thwaite it's running his farm and looking after his grandchildren, Augie and P.J. For Meg Barrett it's a career as a police officer and a life as a single mom to her daughter Maria. For Evelyn Oliver it's a career as a third-grade teacher. But in an instant, life will change for the entire town in One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf.
In the midst of a snowstorm, a lone gunman stalks through the school, eventually taking Mrs. Oliver's class hostage. The action starts right away. Holly gets a frightening call from her daughter Augie. The call that no parent wants to get. Augie is being held hostage and she is calling her mother to profess her love. She's calling to say goodbye, something Holly refuses to accept. Holly is in the hospital recovering from burns suffered in fire. The only thing keeping her going is her children. Once she is out of the hospital, Holly and her children can be a family again.
Just reading the first few pages, I could picture everything in my head. It was like a suspenseful movie being played out. Holly is just a teenager but is already faced with her own mortality.
As the news slowly spreads across the town you feel the vulnerability of all the characters. Meg is fortunate that her own daughter was out of school that day. But a rumor that someone close to Meg is the gunman. She doesn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe it. His name was thrown out there with several others. Everyone tells law enforcement a different story, demonstrating how hard it can be separate fact from fiction in situations like these. No one wants to believe it can be someone they know. It has to be an outsider. Only an outsider could break the harmony in Broken Branch.
Augie is an outsider. Life in Arizona with her mom and P.J. was so much easier. She doesn't want to live on a farm and she doesn't want to like her grandfather. Her mother filled Augie's head with stories of how hard farm life was. P.J. on the other hand loves life on the farm, and loves his grandparents. In Augie's mind, she and P.J. are just killing time in Broken Branch. But Augie puts her teenage angst aside, to search for her brother. Twice Augie has a chance to escape, but doesn't take it without trying to rescue P.J. That redeemed her character for me. She spends too much time hating her grandfather and his lifestyle. She suddenly becomes a vegetarian because he breeds cows. She won't say I love you. She won't show him any small measure of kindness. Being mean to Will is her idea of loyalty to her mother. But whenever P.J. is in danger or just needs help, that selfishness goes away.
There are lots of interesting subplots, but most of the suspense takes place in Mrs. Oliver's classroom. The chapters alternate between the point of view of several characters. Every time Mrs. Oliver took over the narration, I devoured those chapters. Mrs. Oliver is like a mother bear protecting her cubs. Internally, she is scared but doesn't want the kids to know. She stands up to the gunman at every opportunity. If she can get the gunman to focus his anger solely on her, then the kids might make it out alive.
By the end I was anxious to know who the gunman was. What is his motive? Why take children hostage? Just when I thought I knew who he was, it was just another red herring. The identity of the gunman seemed to come out of nowhere. He's a character in the book, but my mind didn't think "killer." I loved the book as a whole, but I was a little disappointed at the conclusion. However, if this gets made into a movie I will be first in line!!
Note: I received a copy of the book from Media Muscle as part of a blog tour.