Courtney Stevens’s latest YA novel, Four Three Two One, explores what it’s like to be a young survivor of an act of senseless violence. High-school students Go Jennings and Chan Clayton are riding a bus in New York City when a bomb goes off on board. They are two of only four survivors.
After they return to the Kentucky commune where they were born and raised, Chan tries to forget that the explosion ever happened. He wants to build his life among what he knows in rural Kentucky, including giving Go a ‘pre-engagement’ ring. Go, however, wants to talk; she wants to understand what happened and think through its implications. She and her grandmother learn about the rebuilding of Bus 21 into a memorial.
Go is in touch online with one of the other survivors, Rudy Guthrie, a young man who was headed to college on an athletic scholarship before the explosion. Rudy is the cousin of the fourth survivor, the bomber’s girlfriend, Caroline Ascott. When all four are invited to the opening ceremony of the memorial, their fears, guilt, and secrets become harder to keep inside.
Each character reacts to the explosion in a different way. Go is afraid to get on any bus, even a school bus. Chan is determined never to leave home again. Rudy adopts a “Don’t feel sorry for me” attitude. And Caroline falls into an abyss of self-hatred. What they all share is a measure of survivor guilt. And they share secrets—secrets that on any other day would have been forgotten already, or at least dealt with. Now, instead, secrets weigh heavy upon them all.
Becky Cable is a fifth teen character who takes up for Go when she’s too scared to get on the school bus. Becky is crucial to the story because she’s able to show the other characters a fresh point of view, one that’s not weighed down with fear and guilt. She reminds them that they can laugh, love, and plan for the future again. As Go notes, Becky “never, ever seemed lonely. Underneath her sarcasm and hair products, Becky Cable was earnest. Add all that to a Mustang, and she was the Chick-fil-A of girls. I told her as much and she said, ‘They do have the best nuggets a kid can buy.’”
Go needs a friend like Becky in a world that otherwise doesn’t understand her. Even Go’s own parents have avoided the subject of the explosion. “Dad,” she says to her father, “you realize we lived through something that made the president of the United State fly a flag at half-staff? That there are memorial funds and hashtags and senators who ran for office on the political gasoline of my grief? Our grief. This is a real thing. You can’t unhappen it by ignoring the details.”
Stevens, a Nashville-based writer, is an adept storyteller, and every time readers may think they have these characters figured out, she provides another piece of information that puts the events of the story in a different light. Four Three Two One deals with a difficult topic, but it is also life-affirming and often funny, and it finds a path between denial and hatred that leads to a place where healing can begin. As Becky says, “This is a truth factory, sweetheart. You make tomorrow’s truth on today’s decision.”
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.