On a seemingly normal day in Oleander, Kansas, five people attacked anyone and everyone around them, using whatever weapons were at their disposal. Afterward, all the murderers killed themselves – except for one: Cass Porter. Cass doesn’t remember killing, but she knows she’s done it. She doesn’t know why she would have done such a thing, but she knows she’s a monster. She’s locked away in a mental hospital, the sentence she received instead of prison, until the tornado hits.
No one understands why five people suddenly became murderers, killing people at random. When a tornado rips through Oleander, it destroys much of the town and kills off a great number of its population. The town is quarantined – for its safety, supposedly. The tornado also unleashes something inside of Oleander’s surviving residents. They start to turn on each other. Small slights turn into bigger transgressions. Religion and small-town politics collide. People start dying again at their neighbors’ hands, only this time, no one seems to care. In fact, many of the residents seem to regard it as business as usual. It turns out the Killing Day wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Oleander; what came after the tornado will be much, much worse.
The story follows several teenagers in the town (a football player, the sister of a murdered child, a girl from the meth-dealing family, etc.), Cass among them, shifting perspectives but keeping everything third person past tense. Their stories overlap in different ways, and they do all end up together near the end (more or less).
This is a tough one to evaluate. It’s not a “jump out at you scary” type of horror novel. I wouldn’t say that I was ever on the edge of my seat, itching to hear what would happen next. It did feel a bit long to me. I think Wasserman sacrificed pacing in order to give us more in-depth character development. That’s not a bad thing, on the whole – but it’s not a choice I personally liked. This is not a quick read.
The key question, the one Wasserman clearly wants the listener/reader to ponder, long after the book is over, is “Did these people do what they did because they always had it in them, or did something external turn them into something they never were?” It’s a question the surviving characters themselves address directly, with different theories. No conclusions are given. We’re deliberately left to wonder. That is the power of the book – and also its most horrifying aspect, I think. What if all your neighbors, your friends, your family harbor the ability to do these terrible things? What if all it takes is something to set it off – and no one would even recognize the difference?
The body count is high. Wasserman doesn’t shy away from killing off her main characters, some in particularly horrible ways. It does make the whole listening experience quite tense, since it’s never clear who’s going to make it to the next chapter – and who’s going to end up burned alive. It doesn’t ever feel exploitative, though, thanks to the time and care Wasserman has taken in creating her characters. They don’t all like each other – and they shouldn’t all like each other – but they’re people you’ll recognize. What they do to each other – both good and bad – is what we all do to each other. Even the horrible things start with a few minor things and escalate.
Kelly’s read this one too, and she’d be able to speak much more to the Midwest setting. I grew up in Southern suburbia and have lived in a large-ish city plus a rural/suburban Southern hybrid, and none of them seem close to what I’ve seen a small town in the Midwest described as. Oleander, Kansas seems very suffocating, even before it’s quarantined – and I’m sure this metaphor will not be lost on teens.
Give this to teens who appreciate thoughtful horror and a more leisurely pace. I’d recommend it on audio as well. Reader Mark Deakins gives the story the appropriate amount of gravitas without making it seem melodramatic. Though I do have to mention that one of his female characters sounds a bit like a character from South Park at times…
Finished copy received from the publisher.