“Three Things I Know Are True” by Betty Culley; HarperCollins, New York, 2020; 480 pages, hardcover, $18.99.

“Three Things I Know Are True” by Betty Culley is marketed as a young adult novel, with the rare twist that the story is told in verse. But trust me, this book is for adults.

It tells the story, in what must be about 200 short narrative lyrics, of Liv, a 15-year-old in “the little mill town / of Maddigan, Maine.” Her older brother, Jonah, has been catastrophically injured in a terrible gun accident. Liv and Jonah’s dad, a millworker, has died not long before. Their mom, Nikki, is not exactly up to the stress of the situation. Home care nurses are in the house 24-7 to take care of Jonah, who is totally incapacitated both physically and mentally. At first no one even knows if he’s conscious or not. As time goes by, it becomes clear to Liv, at least, that he is.

Across the street, in the house where the accident happened, lives the family of Jonah’s friend Clay, who was present when the gun went off. The families are completely estranged by the incident, and two of the many complications Liv has to juggle by herself are how to deal with Clay’s mother’s hesitant reaching out, and a burgeoning but surreptitious relationship with Clay. Clay’s mother, Gwen, sometimes meets Liv in the middle of the road to talk. Liv and Clay meet by the river, where they play a game they call “Three Things,” in which one requires the other to name three things they know are true about a certain subject, such as the river. Or, as the story progresses, more complicated things.

The most pervasive complication Liv struggles beneath is: Who is to blame for Jonah’s injury? Nikki has hired a lawyer to bring a civil suit against Clay’s father, who left the handgun out where Jonah found it and then accidentally shot himself. The lawsuit is public, and so the local newspaper has been carrying stories and the array of community responses, from sympathy for the family to angry Second Amendment defenses. This of course filters into the high school, where Liv’s life is made wretched.

Remarkably, although Liv is shouldering the burden of the blame question almost alone, she herself is not really concerned about it. Her main concern is communicating with Jonah and easing his suffering. She’s on good terms with most of the home care nurses. She talks to Jonah constantly, even though no one else believes he hears anything. She feeds him. She shepherds her emotionally volatile mother. She becomes Gwen’s confidante, despite the situation.

Liv, in a word, takes up the slack of responsibility left by almost everyone around her. For the main theme of this book is the myriad ways of accepting and shirking responsibility. This comes into focus as we learn, bit by fascinating bit, the details of the lawsuit. The undisputed fact is: Jonah carelessly shot himself in the head with a handgun left out in the open by Clay’s father. Clay’s father argues that Jonah is to blame for his own injury because he should have checked to see if the gun was loaded. The father wants his Second Amendment rights, but none of the responsibility that goes with them. Nikki’s lawyer argues that Clay’s father was responsible to take care of the gun. Liv is not sure what there is, besides money, to gain from this. Angry letter writers argue that Jonah’s parents are to blame because they did not teach him proper gun safety.

The childishness of all this is not lost on Liv. The teenager is one of the few emotionally mature characters in the book. She understands, implicitly, that who’s to blame is the least of anybody’s problems, and that taking responsibility for your own circumstances is the key to living (Liv-ing) a decent life. This is, in my experience, completely true to reality. We all know powerful women, and men, who were strong, perceptive and innately ethical enough to take the reins of responsibility long before they seemed old enough.

One of the really remarkable things about “Three Things I Know Are True” is that Liv never thinks this and the narrator never explains it. The characters and story unfold in short, self-contained lyric poems, each one a sketch vividly moving the story forward and simultaneously shaping — never announcing or pronouncing — the themes of personal and public responsibility, communication, the forces of language, and the primacy of emotional meaning in and outside families. This is really an extraordinary book. It’s an intense read, and it goes deep into moral worlds we can all stand to explore further, in this strange and irresponsible day and age.

Betty Culley, of Mercer, has worked as a home hospice nurse. “Three Things I Know Are True” is her first book. It’s available at local book stores and online.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]

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