Are we all familiar with Chekhov’s gun? It’s one of the maxims of dramatic storytelling, according to Anton Chekhov, the master playwright and short-story writer. Basically, if an author introduces a gun in the first act of a story or play, that gun must be fired at some point.
Las Vegas novelist Laura McBride—who was featured in Vegas Seven’s 2014 Intriguing People issue—wastes no time introducing a gun in her debut, We Are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster, $25). It’s right there in the first chapter, in the lingerie drawer of Avis Gisselberg. Avis is 53, a Las Vegas native, recently devastated by the news that her husband, Jim, is having an affair after three decades of marriage. Avis is no stranger to bad news. Growing up in weekly motels with an unstable mother, she’s a firsthand witness to domestic violence. Avis has endured more than her share of personal tragedy, and now she’s worried about the erratic behavior of her son Nathan, a war veteran turned police officer who takes out his anger issues on his wife, Lauren.
As it turns out, there are more guns in McBride’s arsenal. Violence and emotional trauma are everywhere in We Are Called To Rise, and Avis’ story is delicately intertwined with three other main characters: Bashkim Ahmeti, a bright, sensitive third-grader from Albania; Luis Rodriguez-Reyes, a suicidal soldier who lost his grip on sanity surveying for IEDs in the Iraqi desert; and Roberta Weiss, a compassionate lawyer who volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children.
It’s hard to criticize a novel as earnest as We Are Called To Rise, and I suspect book groups will go crazy for it. Not because it’s flawlessly plotted or because the characters are so well-developed, but because this novel stirs up so many different emotions. There’s a lot of pain and suffering here, and many emotional scars. The book was partially inspired by actual events, but real life feels even messier than the story McBride tells, and I had a hard time believing everything the characters said and did during the last third of the book. In her afterword, McBride acknowledges the “unbearably sad” nature of the story, and it’s clear she felt compelled to inject some hope and optimism. I think this story will strike a chord with readers, but I found the ending a little too neat, a little too easily resolved.
All the characters in We Are Called to Rise are faced with navigating some kind of physical or emotional minefield. Accidents happen, mistakes are made, and one can’t always count on the legal system for true justice. I admire McBride for tackling such difficult subject matter, and if the book finds the audience I think it deserves, it will be due to McBride’s belief that despite enormous obstacles and the darkest personal tragedies, people can be rehabilitated and learn to forgive. ★★★✩✩