Have you ever heard of Laurie Dann? She worked as a babysitter in the north suburbs of Chicago and tried to burn down the house of a family she worked for with two children and their parents trapped inside. She then entered Hubbard Woods Elementary School with three guns, and shot at a class of second graders, killing one and wounding more. When the police finally reached her, barricaded in the bedroom of a stranger’s house she had forced her way into, she was already dead; she had shot herself through the mouth.
Most people don’t know that earlier in afternoon, before the suicide, before the shooting, before the fire, Dann had actually come to Ravinia Elementary School in Highland Park and set fire to a bag full of gasoline in the first-floor boy’s bathroom. A few students saw smoke crawling from the garbage, and a teacher extinguished it before anybody was hurt. Dann also left poisoned brownies in the teacher’s lounge, but nobody ate them. I’m pretty sure the teacher who put out the firebomb was our own second grade teacher, Mrs. Walsh. Sometimes one of our older brothers had been the one to identify the smoke, but that never seemed likely.
No one had been the first to tell us this story — it was breathed in through the air or via photosynthesis. We passed it along like it was spending money, lurid information exchanged for a few minutes of a captive audience, wide-eyed with horror. We saw no newspaper articles about the event; it would be years before the internet would be a tool at our disposal but we knew, without a doubt, that it was entirely true — just like we knew the gossip about those two married teachers who had an affair together was legitimate. Just like how Dr. Wentz was actually in the CIA. He says he’s a retired military officer, but Rebecca’s older brother had been in his English class on Sept. 11, 2001 when two men in suits entered the classroom and swept Dr. Wentz into a black SUV.
Beneath the history of every town runs a deeper, parallel history like an underground river — the history that children have amassed and share among themselves entirely independently from the outside world. To call it a collection of urban legends makes it sound like a book of fairy tales or the sort of stories we would tell over campfires while we gestured with marshmallow fingers. These stories were fascinating, but they weren’t fantastical: they were simply the unchallenged, accepted fabric of our institutions. We accepted these secret histories — distilled through word-of-mouth and multiple generations — unquestioningly as oddities of the adult world.
That idiosyncrasy of youth — that we navigate childhood with such certainty of our insight into adult institutions — is at the heart of Never Let Me Go, the 2005 novel by newly minted Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. The book takes place in a quasi-dystopian England, narrated by a woman named Kathy who’s reminiscing about her years at a boarding school called Hailsham and the relationships she built with two other students, Tommy and Ruth.
They play sports. They produce art — which is heavily emphasized in the curriculum. And when they outgrow Hailsham, they move to the Cottages, the next step in their prescribed existence as genetically engineered organ donors. That’s their purpose — to grow up healthy, and then give their bodies away to others. But that nightmarish scenario, which could be a climactic revelation in a film or Twilight Zone episode with blaring minor key music is unremarkable to Kathy and her classmates. Unlike other dystopias, Never Let Me Go never approaches its premise with a morality shaped in our world. The teenage protagonist cannot “see through” the system because she has been created in the system. The system is an accepted part of life and all of their childhood mythology has been constructed around it, like moss and undergrowth of a forest swallowing an abandoned car.
Never Let Me Go is a brilliant book, the type of book that makes your heart ache years after reading it just thinking about it, because it concerns itself not with the sensational details of its made-up science-fiction world but with the far more interesting, quiet world that children construct for themselves.
Kathy has an understanding of what happens to the artwork that Madame takes on gallery days. She knows the hidden lives of her teachers. She’s fully aware that there might be a “possible” — the source of her genetic material — out there walking around somewhere. Children build narratives through gossip and jokes, shared like oxygen between them until the adult world goes from something vast and unknowable to something easily understood if only one can collect and share enough tidbits like trading cards.
Ishiguro captured a profound and ubiquitous truth about childhood and that way we first begin to paw, blindly, at understanding. The history of any institution as its understood by its children is often impossible to explain in all of its texture and detail to outsiders. Ishiguro manages not only to achieve that, making every reader feel as though she was a student at Hailsham, aware of all of its idiosyncrasies and arbitrary traditions but to do so in an entirely imagined science-fiction universe. That he’d also be able to break your heart is a foregone conclusion.