Book Review: IF WE HAD KNOWN, the aftermath of a mall killing in a small college town

juska, elise - if we had known (4)If We Had Known
Elise Juska

The small town of Reed, Maine reeled when Nathan Dugan entered the local shopping mall and started firing, killing four (one of whom died in the hospital) before turning a gun on himself. Nathan had been a student at Central Maine State University and four years ago had taken Freshman Composition with Professor Maggie Daley. Luke Finch, who was also in the class, wrote a post on Facebook about his memories of Nathan, how he’d made the class uncomfortable, and how a paper he wrote was weird. Luke’s reminiscence went viral, and other classmates commented about their fear of Nathan and discomfort in the classroom.

Maggie, distracted by the imminent departure of her troubled daughter, Anna, for college in Boston, and frustrated that her boyfriend, Robert, still lived with his estranged wife, became embroiled in a debate about how much she should have intervened based on Nathan’s writing. The extent of Maggie’s responsibility was questioned online, in local periodicals, and throughout the community.

Both the shooting itself and the debate over what could have been done to prevent the tragedy irrevocably change Nathan’s mother, Maggie, Anna, Luke, and the people around them.

In beautiful prose, If We Had Known poignantly traces the aftermath of the tragedy while revealing both the connective power of social media as well as its ability to perpetuate misinformation and superficiality. It interrogates the integrity of memory and shows how perspective impacts meaning. And it provides a heartbreaking rendition of the transition to college and the frightening descent into mental illness. Yet, despite the subject matter and the trials faced by the characters, the novel is ultimately a hopeful portrait of the power of connection.