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Book Review

July 19, 2012
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‘One Breath Away’

Courtesy of Beaverdale Books

Reviewed by Catherine Rihm

By Heather Gudenkauf




384 pp

The terrifying memory of a disgruntled graduate student opening fire in a classroom at the University of Iowa when Heather Gudenkauf was a senior on campus sparked the author’s third novel, “One Breath Away.” Her new book takes place in Broken Branch, a small Iowa town. As an errant March snowstorm settles in during the last day before spring break commences, the town slowly learns that an unknown gunman has entered the school, taking the students and teachers hostage.

Gudenkauf relays her tale through the voices of five characters, alternating chapters with each of them. Holly, the mother of Augie and PJ — both students at the school — left Broken Branch 15 years earlier, determined to never return to the town or to her parents who still farm there. A debilitating accident made it necessary for her to send her two children to her parents’ care. Augie, her older child, is with fierce loyalty to her mother dead-set against warming up to her new surroundings. Wise and brave beyond her years, she plays a key role in helping some of the students.

Meg, a town police officer struggling with her own family issues, responds to the scene at the school and attempts rescue of the children. She is eventually contacted directly by the intruder and enters the school to confront him. Will, Holly’s dad, ever confused about her hatred for him and searching for a way to reconnect with her and his grandchildren, struggles to find a way to return them to safety and reclaim Holly’s love. Mrs. Oliver, months from retiring from a lifetime of teaching, finds herself face to face with the armed man and bravely attempts to protect her third grade students, PJ included.

As the narrators speak, Gudenkauf deftly reveals their stories and expertly fleshes out their characters. “One Breath Away” unfolds simply, and the steadily falling snow amplifies the tension as she propels you through the chilling suspense. This is a worthwhile, entertaining thriller not without reflection on family and community. CV

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