On a dreary morning as a storm blows darkly through Broken Branch, a frightened child phones her mom from class: “He has a gun. He has P.J. and he has a gun…I’m in a closet.” This is one of many calls parents receive throughout the day. Shots are fired, and the call ends. ONE BREATH AWAY is a book about the families and heroes whose lives are forever changed by the events of a single day. The folks of Broken Branch, Iowa, have too many suspects to nail down the identity of the perpetrator. A few children and school officials even question whether the gunman might even be a child or a parent.
"ONE BREATH AWAY will instantly draw readers in with immediate action and superb characterization. Gudenkauf’s expert skills as a bestselling writer are apparent throughout this novel.... This tense thriller is also a touching family drama that can easily be read in a single afternoon."
The tale is told from the viewpoints of several main characters. Holly is a single, middle-aged mom who’s recuperating in a hospital burn unit after a serious accident. She’s fighting to survive and enduring endless pain as a secondary infection eats her body. Holly has had no other choice than to turn over her children’s welfare to her estranged parents, even as she remains unaware of exactly why she’s able to love her folks but not trust or like them. Of course, this is excruciatingly hard on Augie and P.J., who have never met their grandparents and miss their mom. But everything changes once the kids are taken hostage.
We meet Evelyn Oliver, the teacher whose classroom is targeted while others stay out of sight, relying on substandard lockdown protocols designed for the protection of the students and faculty. Broken Branch’s dilapidated school provides no real shelter or reasonable procedures to deal with hostile situations. Teachers and students cower in their chosen “safe place,” locked away from the police and their own families as the gunman calls the shots. Few have the bravery or presence of mind to actually break their own protocols and get out, but Mrs. Oliver, even in captivity, is tremendously clever and heroic under pressure. She does everything she can to save all of the kids under her care.
We move next to Meg Barrett, a steely, attractive young police officer who’s new to Broken Branch and whose own daughter thankfully happens to be absent the day the gunman attacks. Meg works behind the scenes to uncover the hidden identity of the criminal while dealing with many agonized families, a few who have armed themselves and are ready to storm the school. And who can blame them when the police seem to be doing so little?
Will Thwaite is Holly’s father and the grandfather of Augie and P.J., one of the boys in Mrs. Oliver’s class. He’s a traditional farmer with a very industrious, sensible character and outdated views. Will is only just beginning to know his daughter and grandkids when tragedy threatens. Somehow he hopes to mend the broken pieces of his shattered relationships, knowing that if he can save the kids, he’ll save his daughter and himself. Though Will and Holly have contradictory perspectives by nature, their stories are quite compelling. Author Heather Gudenkauf does a fabulous job presenting a number of sympathetic characters here with varying views of a single story. It really is impossible not to fall in love with the folks of Broken Branch, Iowa.
ONE BREATH AWAY will instantly draw readers in with immediate action and superb characterization. Gudenkauf’s expert skills as a bestselling writer are apparent throughout this novel. Several mysteries prove very difficult to unravel, the foremost being the identity and reasoning of the gunman. This tense thriller is also a touching family drama that can easily be read in a single afternoon. It’s a great summer read with excellent pacing that quickens as the tension builds. The hostage situation here represents a plausible scenario despite the newer policies and protocols resulting from Columbine. The way this all plays out will leave readers aware of just how much we, as parents and a community, are still unprepared to deal with these kinds of scenarios.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on June 29, 2012