“The last time she had been certain of where she was, and where she was going, was August 1, 1966, when she had started off to buy tampons from the Rexall on the Drag. The life she might have lived, if not for that day, was lost to her. She had headed northwest across the South Mall and been hauled off to the hospital in another direction, her life irreparably changed by the timing of her exit from the math class on that summer day when she was nineteen years old. Charles Whitman had singled her out of hundreds of people crossing the campus, and even now she wondered why he had decided on her.”
Before Columbine and Sandy Hook, there was the shooting at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. On a sweltering August afternoon, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student and former Marine, murdered his mother and wife before disguising himself as a maintenance man and hauling a footlocker full of guns and ammunition to the top of the UT Tower.
As a 2006 “Texas Monthly” retrospective so aptly put it, Whitman, with the pull of the trigger, “ushered in the notion that any group of people, anywhere—even walking around a university campus on a summer day—could be killed at random by a stranger.”
In “Monday, Monday,” Elizabeth Crook uses vivid, gripping prose and in-depth historical research to shed light on one of the darkest moments in Texas history—that sadly still has relevance today—by detailing the fictional lives of three survivors caught in the crosshairs.
The book begins with Shelly, a self-described average girl from Lockhart who dreams of joining the Peace Corp. She leaves her math class early and begins walking across the plaza just in time for the first shots from Whitman’s sniper rifle to be fired. Cousins Wyatt, an art graduate student, and Jack, a Vietnam vet, are safe in a nearby building, but brave the chaos in an effort to rescue the wounded—Shelly included. What follows are three lifetimes inextricably linked by the events of that 96-minute killing spree that spanned five city blocks and left 13 dead and 30 wounded.
The close of the adrenaline-fueled, heart-wrenching first chapter marks the end of the shootings, leaving the remaining 300 pages for forbidden love, family issues, new life, tender moments of happiness, more personal tragedy, guarded secrets and sacrifice. The story becomes a multi-generational saga overshadowed by the ever present, sometimes-metaphorical looming Tower. The plot twists, which occur over the span of 40 years, are not entirely unpredictable, but not so obvious that you dare stop reading before you know how it ends.
Crook’s fourth book, the novel also provides a commentary on feelings toward war, women’s reproductive rights and infidelity, both in the 1960s and the early 2000s, where the book concludes. It subtly examines a national tragedy from the perspective of those who only read about it in history books versus that of those who experienced it firsthand and are left to pick up the pieces long after the world has turned off its spotlight. Crook takes you inside the minds of the leading characters, allowing for distinctive perspectives, and leaves you with a lasting impression of how twisted the human mind can become, while also being resilient against all odds.
The feeling of longing—to delve deeper, to answer unanswerable questions and to know what might have been had their lives not been forever altered—is a constant presence throughout the book. Depending on the reader, the ending could either perpetuate that feeling or it could provide closure, as it seemingly did for the main characters, and remind the reader that we are not necessarily defined by our shortcomings, but rather by our ability to overcome.
Rivard Report: Non-fiction books have been written about the gunman Charles Whitman and the events of the UT shooting, but yours appears to be one of the first accounts written as historical fiction. What made you want to write it?
Elizabeth Crook: I started out to write a very different kind of book—a light, comedic, contemporary story about a mother and two daughters—a divergence from the heavier historical books I had written. But six months into writing I still had no traction. The story seemed irrelevant and unimportant to me. There was not enough at stake for the characters or enough to worry about on their behalf. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. And then Texas Monthly published Pam Colloff’s 96 Minutes about Charles Whitman’s rampage—a powerfully moving account of the people who found themselves caught up in what happened that day. Before I knew it, the story I was writing had shifted backwards 40 years and the mother I was writing about was not yet a mother, but a nineteen year old co-ed crossing the UT south mall on a sunny day when Charles Whitman placed her in the crosshairs of his scope. This was a more urgent and important narrative than the one I had been writing, and it became appallingly more relevant over the next few years because of the escalation of horrendous school shootings.
The news is filled with accounts of the victims and the heroes when these terrible events happen, but then these people slide out of our public consciousness. What happens to them in the rest of their lives? How do they come to terms with the fact that their lives have been altered and thrown off course by the malicious act of a single, unhinged individual? I felt that was a story worth telling.
RR: You included an incredible amount of detail, describing the UT campus and the shooting, as well as other events and places in Texas, such as the flood in San Marcos and Devil’s Sinkhole. How did you go about researching these events and places, and how did you determine what to include?
EC: It’s hard to think back to the beginning of any of those ideas. I write with very little direction or planning. The whole process is a little like driving in the fog; in the end I can’t exactly identify which roads I’ve been down or why I chose them. So how I found my way to Aquarena and Devil’s Sinkhole is unclear in retrospect. It probably had something to do with the fact that writing about disasters is more interesting to me than other kinds of writing, and those places were good settings. Also, Aquarena is in my hometown of San Marcos and I spent a lot of time there as a child. I lived through several floods in San Marcos, so I know the destructive power of those waters.
As for Devil’s Sinkhole, my friend Steve Harrigan suggested that place and I went to see it. I found myself with a bunch of other tourists in the middle of that pasture at dusk, watching a cloud of bats rise up out of the enormous cavern, and I was hooked on the experience. Later, Geary Schindel with the Edwards Aquifer Authority in San Antonio was kind enough to educate me about the sinkhole, and my friend Jeff Long spent a lot of time explaining how my character Dan Hadley could rescue someone who was dangling halfway to the bottom on a frayed rope.
RR: In the previously mentioned 2006 Texas Monthly article, Colloff interviewed various people touched by the tragedy, many of them students. One student, Shelton Williams, describes how he remembered “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas playing on the radio. Is this where the idea for the title came from? Was there a particular reason that it jumped out at you?
EC: Yes, that’s exactly where I got the idea. Actually a number of people I spoke with mentioned hearing that song on the radio that day. It was popular that summer and often played on Mondays, which was when the Whitman shootings occurred.
RR: Were the main characters—Shelly, Wyatt and Jack—based, in part, on real people?
EC: No. I’m always careful not to base my characters on real people. That was especially important in this book because August 1, 1966 was a heartbreaking day in Austin and the memories are still very real here. The day is still strangely with us. It would be irresponsible of me to trespass on that tragedy by creating characters who resemble the individuals involved. I spoke with a number of people who did some of the things my characters do in the story—who were shot, or who took great risks to help those who were wounded. But the characters are my own, purely fictional people.
RR: Without giving anything away, could you talk a little about the ending of the book? There’s the feeling that you don’t exactly know what happened to each of the characters, yet there is a degree of closure. What was your thought process behind building the ending?
EC: I followed the characters for 40 years; the reader will know exactly what happened to them during that time and will also know where each character’s life is headed when the book comes to an end. But at some point I had to stop telling the story, and when Shelly finally goes up into the tower and is able to look down at the south mall plaza from Charles Whitman’s viewpoint, and see the image of herself as she was the moment he placed her in the crosshairs— a young co-ed from Lockhart—and to think back on how she has lived the life that was handed to her that day, with all the mistakes she has made along the way and how she has righted them—that was the logical place to stop telling her story.
I wouldn’t want to write a book in which things are held back from the reader in the end, and I haven’t done that here. But if a book doesn’t leave you thinking about the characters and what might happen to them after the story is over, or doesn’t leave you mulling over some of the larger themes of how we live our lives, and where our decisions, or lack of decisions, or mere chance takes us, then it will be a book that’s easy to forget. And I wouldn’t want to write that book, either.
Elizabeth Crook will be at the San Antonio Book Festival with fellow author Kathleen Kent for a discussion entitled "No Farewell to Arms: Texas, Violence, and History" from 1-2 p.m. in the gallery on the first floor of the Central Library. The talk will be moderated by fellow author Stephen Harrigan. Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and you can customize your own schedule for the day by choosing favorites.