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Friday, April 21, 2017

Perfect Timing: Ashley Elston’s This Is Our Story


Why the pub date of Elston's captivating mystery-thriller about politics, power, and privilege couldn't have been more spot-on.  ♦ 
“A ten-point buck and a dead body make the same sound when they hit the forest floor.”
   With this chilling opening line, Ashley Elston's This Is Our Story hooks its readers and starts reeling them in. The novel tells the story of high school senior Kate Marino, who is desperately trying to solve the mystery of who killed Grant Perkins, the fifth of the so-called River Point Boys, a group of high school boys who are all upper-class, privileged, good-looking, and, most importantly, white. In a drug-induced haze early one morning, the five boys went hunting, but only four came back. One of the boys killed Grant, but because all of the boys’ fingerprints are on the rifle that fired the fatal bullet, none of them will confess. Since Kate has an internship at the district attorney’s office, she feels compelled to use the resources available to her to figure out the killer before all of the boys escape punishment. Of course, nothing comes easy in cases like these—the government officials surrounding Kate want nothing more than to quietly sweep the whole matter under the rug, and she has a sneaking suspicion that there’s something more going on, given the power and political connections of the boys' families. Her fight to bring Grant’s killer to justice is further complicated by her surprising connection to him and, in turn, her connection to all of the River Point Boys.
  As a protagonist, Kate will be sure to evoke nostalgia in fans of Nancy Drew—her independence, intelligence, and unwillingness to back down make her a modern version of the classic teen detective. Throw in a subplot involving a circulating photo of girls being sexually exploited at an out-of-control party, a perfectly timed plot twist that will almost certainly catch you off guard (even if you pride yourself in detecting those curveballs from miles away), and intermittent sections narrated by Grant’s chillingly cold killer, and you’ve got yourself a novel that will stick with you long after your eyes pass over the final words. However, beyond all of this, the reason this novel still haunts me has to do with its eerie connection to today’s political and cultural climate.
    Back when she was drafting this novel, Elston could not have known it would be released exactly a week after the 2016 Presidential Election, and even when she knew the release date, she couldn't have realized how relevant the themes in her novel would be. Though the themes of white privilege, upper-class privilege, and government corruption are not new to novels or to the general public, they are certainly more prevalent in the public consciousness right now. Unfortunately, to make clear all of the connections between the novel and the current news cycle would require giving away spoilers, but I can speak to them on a surface level: Everyone knows that one of the River Point Boys killed Grant. The kids at their school know. The police officers know. The district attorney knows. Yet, so many of these people are willing to let all of the boys go free, to forget about bringing the killer to justice, and the reason why is glaringly obvious: the River Point Boys are white and they’re wealthy—or, rather, their parents are. Those working in the government know how much influence the parents have over their positions, and they are not willing to compromise their jobs for anything.
    It's made quite clear throughout the novel that if the boys’ parents were not so wealthy and well-connected, the case would have been handled differently, and while the connection between the boys’ race and how they are treated within the justice system does not explicitly come up in the book, it's easy to make the connection between race and privilege given recent instances of racial profiling and police shootings directed at minorities. And, as the themes of wealth, privilege, and corruption intersect, it's also hard not to see obvious connections between Elston’s novel and President Donald Trump’s cabinet, where positions are filled by the same rich, white, privileged class on the basis of campaign contributions, political power, and cronyism—Betsy DeVos, anyone?—rather than on any merit besides how money talks (or, convinces us to keep quiet). And while I don't want to spoil the ending of the novel, I will say that, by the end, Elston makes a clear point on additional privilege as a result of someone’s class or race that stuck with me just as much as This Is Our Story’s conclusion did.
   As a reader, I spent the entire novel—literally down to the final pages—trying to figure out who killed Grant. Every time I settled on a name, I changed my mind, and the aforementioned plot twist left me constantly second-guessing myself. Writing a mystery-thriller such as this is an art—the author has to reveal some clues to keep the readers intrigued, but not enough to let them solve the mystery too early (or even at all)—and Elston has perfected this art, telling Kate’s story in a way that captivates the reader.
   This Is Our Story will leave you breathless, turning back pages to try and find the clue you might’ve missed. It will leave you hurting for those who were affected by Grant’s death. It will leave you feeling proud of Kate for stepping up and doing what’s right. But, most importantly, it will leave you thinking about how the story would play out in today’s world. This novel’s connection to what is going on around us is what makes it so important—and Elston’s ability to eloquently make that connection is what makes it so wonderful.
  • About the Author
    Haley Hopkins is a junior English Literature and Creative Writing double major at Miami University. She works as a consultant at the Howe Center for Writing Excellence and is a recipient of the Daniel and Margaret Bookwalter Award in Creative Writing. When she isn't reading or writing, you can probably find her watching Netflix, eating guacamole, or looking at pictures of huskies on the internet.

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