To me, the criteria for a good novel, even one based on fact and rigorously researched like Morris’s Aftermath, is good characterization. Plot, resolution of plot, description, or anything else is not as important to me. Morris’s 2016 novel, the story of the aftermath of the New London School tragedy in New London, Texas, March 18, 1937 could be a novel of great suspense and tragic drama. However, the novel deals with the aftermath of the explosion that killed one-third of the town’s population, almost all of its children and teachers, and affected each household in the community. The following questions were suggested by a fellow blogger to measure how an author dealt with character.
- Who was your favorite character? Delys Lithingate, a survivor of the New London School Explosion, was the main character, the protagonist, but as my Third Tuesday Book Club agreed, she was not necessarily a “favorite” character because she had flaws and often acted selfishly, and was even described at a “teenage brat” by one member. (She was booed down by the rest of the members, reminding her of how her aunt intruded on her life and caused “hateful,” selfish thoughts in Delys’s mind.) Most of us agreed Delys was definitely a complex character and was expertly drawn in fairness and honesty by the author.
- Who was your favorite secondary character? Here, at the book club, there was agreement–Bruce Buckstrum. He had our complete empathy, reading him as “always second,” first to his brother and sister; then his life took a backseat to his father who went to pieces via alcohol after dealing with the bodies and deaths caused by the explosion. After all, he was the town doctor, and ended up telling parents there was nothing he could do to save their children or gathered up missing parts of bodies for parents to identify. What he went through in the aftermath of the explosion was more than a person could bear, and his son Bruce was stuck for the rest of his father’s life taking care of him and seeing “he got through the day.” We agreed that Bruce was not dumb or slow in school but had so many home duties and responsibilities he couldn’t study or even make the effort to excel in school like Delys did. We agreed that Delys sometimes looked down on Bruce as lesser than she, as “sweet, but not very smart.”
- Would you want to follow these characters in the future? We did not discuss this as a group, but personally, I felt the author brought the adult characters together after the war in a fascinating scene, where they had their “moment” together. One member mentioned that it was “convenient” that Bruce had sex with Delys before telling her he was “done” with their relationship. We agreed that although the ending was not, “and they lived happily ever after,” that it was a satisfactory and realistic one. Several argued that Delys was an independent woman, very satisfied with her home, her life, and her position and that she did not need a man in her life–not even Bruce–to make her life complete. Whether this was selfishness or independence, we could not decide.
4. What about the relationship between the characters in the book? Interestingly enough, some of us thought that Delys, with all her obsessing and daydreaming over Bruce and their make-out sessions, made up or imagined some of the scenes in the book. We all agreed that Delys’s idealized version of Bruce’s devotion and love for her was probably constructed in her own mind. We never could decide whether Delys actually heard Bruce at the performance of the Scottish Brigade, or if it were her imagination (or willful desire) playing tricks on her. Her response, ignoring and not breaking ranks to respond demonstrated her true feelings toward Bruce and their “relationship.” the fact that she immediately left on a date with another young man reflected her indifference to Bruce and their feelings for each other. Again, it was a complex relationship, involving a complexly-drawn character, and caused the reader to give much thought to how the character had been formed by the tragedy in her life, while reading the novel.
Several of us had lived in Houston, and one grew up in a town very near New London (Her parents heard the explosion as children), so we were nit-picky about the settings. We all agreed the author had done her research admirably and had obviously traveled to both settings to be as descriptively accurate as she was.
Overall, we all liked the novel and were glad we had invested our valuable reading time in this novel. Two of us, however, had read other books by the same author we liked better than this one.
I’d give this a five out of five stars.