It Needed To Be Told: Forthcoming Merle Drown novel recalls the school tragedy that preceded the Challenger disaster


MANCHESTER, N.H., March 27, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- A forthcoming novel from Merle Drown recalls a tragedy that occurred at Christa McAuliffe's high school the month before the Challenger disaster.

In 1985, novelist Merle Drown was a high school teacher in Concord, New Hampshire, and among those cheering for a Concord High colleague who had won herself a seat on the next space shuttle mission.

"This was December, and the whole school was emblazoned with banners about the Challenger mission next month," Drown said. "And Christa McAuliffe was just a terrific person, very likeable and warm, not at all full of herself."

Everybody remembers the tragedy that ensued, but in that month before lift-off in January, 1986, Concord High was wracked by another sort of tragedy—one obscured by the Challenger explosion, and now largely forgotten. A forthcoming novel by Drown, however, will revisit an incident that proved to be a dire harbinger of Columbine and other school shootings to come.

"At that time older kids still came to school in pickups that had full gun racks behind the seats," Drown said. "When the assistant principal saw this student in the hallway in camo, carrying a double-barreled shotgun, he thought it was all for show-and-tell. So he told the kid to leave the gun in the office until he needed it later."

Merle Drown knew that student, and also the two young hostages the boy took in an event that Drown believes was simply a runaway attempt gone wrong. He thinks the boy just panicked when confronted by police. And when it appeared that one of the hostages was in mortal danger—maybe, or maybe not—police shot and killed the boy. Drown heard it all from the school's second floor.

"The noise-level was incredible, and in the immediate aftermath this mythology took hold about why it happened," he said. "The story involved bullying and revenge and class and social cliques, but that's not really what was going on there."

Today Drown is a faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program. In fact Drown helped found that program in 2006, adapting practices he remembered from the years—1976-78—that he attended the nation's first low-residency MFA program at Goddard College.

There his mentors were, in order, Richard Rhodes and Richard Ford, both of whom would win Pulitzer Prizes, and John Irving, who would win a National Book Award. After Goddard, and while teaching at Concord High, Drown began chronicling the sort of gritty, backwater neighborhoods of rural New Hampshire in which he had grown up. "Ploughing Up a Snake" (Doubleday, 1982) was praised by Kirkus Reviews as a "serious, promising fiction debut."

His follow-up, "The Suburbs of Heaven" (Soho, 2000) created more of a stir. Selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers series, the novel earned favorable comparisons from Newsday to the "white trash" novels of William Faulkner and Russell Banks. "Throughout, Drown's language shines," cheered Publisher's Weekly, "and even his most misguided characters are fully alive, resonant, and original, speaking with quiet, piercing wisdom."

Drown went eighteen years between publishing those two novels, meanwhile writing short stories, essays, reviews, plays, and a screenplay. He is one of those writers whose major works take time. And the pattern holds for his next novel, "Lighting the World," which will be published next year by the Whitepoint Press, and whose plot and characters are built around the events of that forgotten day at Concord High in 1985.

Drown emphasized that this is every inch a novel, a work of fiction, but in also affirming its based-on-true-events pedigree, he means for it to be an act of testimony as well. "The kid with the gun was a junior, from a hard luck sort of background," said Drown, "and as it turned out, that was a hard luck class at Concord High. Several of those kids went on to violent, unfortunate lives."

Like Faulkner and Banks, Drown finds a dignity in his characters that belies any label of "white trash." "The tragedies that afflict those among us who are poor, neglected, and unseen are no less painful than those that afflict kings and movers-and-shakers," Drown said. "With this story, I just had a sense that it needed to be told."

Lisa De Niscia, the founder of Whitepoint Press, sees another reason for its telling. "What intrigues me about 'Lighting the World' is the way it makes sense out of something so horrible, and how it answers the question why would a teenage boy—armed as if he were going to war—enter his high school and cause chaos," she said. "Because of so many school shootings in recent years, 'Lighting the World' is cathartic, providing a much-needed balm for our psyches."

Writer Richard Adams Carey, the assistant director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program, agrees with all of the above. "The story tells of a loss of innocence that has assumed national dimension," he said. "And in Merle Drown—both an eye-witness and a grab-you-by-the-throat storyteller, the event has found its Truman Capote."

A photo accompanying this release is available at:

CONTACT: Richard Adams Carey 603.284.7064 603.716.4278 r.carey@snhu.eduSource:Southern New Hampshire UniversityMFA and Creative Writing