The first thing you notice about Betty Culley’s novel “Three Things I Know Are True” is that it is written in free verse. There’s lots of white space around clusters of black words. The form intrigues the eye, but it also sharpens the acuity of the words on the page. Liv, the 15-year-old protagonist, says on the first page:

“Jonah’s hands are still now,
even though he’s only seventeen.
It’s not his choice anymore—
hands under the covers
or on top.”

A bit further on:

“Jonah’s bad hands found a gun
in Clay’s attic.
Waved it in the air,
twirled it around his fingers,
held it to his head.”

Cover courtesy of Amazon

Thus is presented the hard nut that holds the tender coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Liv. Her father, who worked at the mill in town, is dead. Liv’s immediate, cloistered world now includes her mom and her brother Jonah in a hospital bed in the living room. (All main characters are referenced by first name only.) She struggles to thread her way through the world-crushing effects of the tragedy. This includes a community vocally divided over the issue of guns, and Liv seeking to protect her mother from it as best she can. She also gives hours caring for her brother, while steeling herself against a pending lawsuit.

The house where Jonah shot himself is right across the street. Liv imagines now an invisible line that runs between the houses. The line, however, is its own tragedy, as it separates her from Clay. Both lost now, they are left to stare out the window at one another. The family lawyer tells Liv “it’s best/if Clay doesn’t come here/anymore.”

But it’s not that simple. There has always been connection between the two, never voiced, but felt. They need each now more than ever. And the absence of contact propels the sense of connection toward longing.

“That’s the way it was
with Clay and me —
he was Jonah’s friend
but he never acted like
I wasn’t there.”

At one point, Gwen, Clay’s mother, tells Liv to leave Clay alone.

”I’ve seen how he looks
across the street.
Don’t make things worse
than they already are.
To which Liv responds,
“’Really, Gwen.’
I take a step forward,
’do you think things could be WORSE
for us?’”

The pending trial, its proceeding and aftermath provide the framework for the story. People have many opinions about what happened and who’s responsible. One resident argues in an editorial that a man ought to be able to have guns in his own house. Liv’s mother is seeking a million dollars in damages.

Liv cares lovingly for Jonah. She rubs lotion on his body, holds his hand, brings it to her mouth and kisses it, climbs up in his bed to lie beside him. His nurses become her substitute friends circle. She calls new nurses who come in “contestants” in the Jonah Pageant. Her mother remarks how lucky they are to get nurses in a mill town. Liv wonders if you can still call it a mill town when the mill is closed.

For five months after the tragedy, Liv and Clay don’t see each other. When they finally do, Clay laments he’s come to the landing every Saturday since the shooting wanting to know how she was. She protests she’s texted him a thousand times. He tells her he got rid of his phone. He’s also dropped out of school to avoid the endless curiosity of other students about the details of what happened. Liv takes Clay’s hand. It squeezes back, something Jonah’s hand never does.

“But holding Clay’s hand
is like hearing
a foreign language
I can only guess
What is being said.”

She kisses it, and seals their bond.

The trial is ugly. After testifying in court, Clay disappears. The findings are taken under advisement by the judge, leaving everyone waiting. Liv pushes forward, caring for Jonah, missing Clay. The last third of the book explores the complexity of many tangled lives. The drama is played out in the unfolding of the individual fates of Liv, Clay and Jonah, attempting to put it all behind them.

Central Maine resident Betty Culley’s debut novel comes close to being a great book. She explores a riveting theme, facing tragedy with grace, in an exciting form. Her characters are appealing and richly drawn. Her strong narrative voice draws you in. However, “Three Things I Know Are True” could have been tightened, with some elements streamlined or deleted, others allowed to run longer, getting their due.

Though it is pegged as a novel for teens, the book warrants a much wider readership. I’m eager for Culley’s next one.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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