Finished Chasing Alice by Stephanie Fowler. You can get a copy here.
Summary (from Stephanie’s website):
“On Sunday, September 4th, 2011, Alice Davis, a respected and beloved English teacher at Parkside High School in Salisbury, Maryland, vanished. Her disappearance shocked the community and left her family, friends, fellow teachers, and students fearing the worst. Within days, her husband, Jess Davis, committed suicide just as the police were closing in on him as their prime suspect. Alice’s body was soon discovered in the woods near their home and the terrible crime came to a swift conclusion.
But what remains? For one of Alice’s students, Stephanie L. Fowler, the heartbreaking loss of her high school mentor set her on a journey to honor the teacher she loved. Part memoir, true crime, biography, and cautionary tale, Chasing Alice examines Alice’s life, reveals the dangers of isolation and domestic violence, and seeks to preserve the legacy of a woman who touched the lives of many.”
So I’m not going to be calling her Alice. She was Mrs. Davis to me, and I think she’d understand. And this won’t be a normal review.
So this book is amazing. Stephanie’s writing is so great and and there were sentences that took my breath away. (There are so many that I literally can’t even begin to quote them. They’re all through this book. Which is no surprise–she had the best teacher and she’s literally an award-winning writer.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m one of the students interviewed in this book. (She was my AP English teacher my senior year, the year my dad died. My favorite anecdote of that time is in the book, but I’ll tell it here, too. So probably a month or so after my dad died, I was in her class one day. And I was paying attention and awake but I had my head down on the desk and she stopped the class and looked at me and said, “Kelly, if you were a horse, I would shoot you.” And mostly when I tell that story, people are kind of shocked. The reaction is “What a complete bitch!” But it made me laugh then and it made me laugh every other time I tell it or think about it, including right now*. Because here’s the thing: when you’re 17 and your dad dies, people treat you like you’re fragile. (Probably because you are.) But the thing with Mrs. Davis? She was great at sizing people up and seeing what they needed. And I needed someone to make me laugh and to treat me like any other student.
Someone who would make me focus and work. Because her class was WORK. It was harder than any class I’d had up to that point and harder than any class I took in college. (Fun fact: I took a Shakespeare class my sophomore year in college and a lot of plays we read were ones that she taught me two years prior. Did my professor think I was a genius because I remembered everything she taught? Well, okay, “genius” is probably too strong, but he gave me excellent grades. I wish I had thought to call and thank her.)
I’m a fan of true crime and horror movies, probably because I’ve always felt like things are always incredibly close to going horribly wrong and forewarned is forearmed. But it becomes a different thing once you know someone who’s murdered. (She wasn’t my teacher at the time; I graduated in 1998 and she was murdered in 2011–which means it’s been almost a decade, which feels impossible.) And there’s a lot of “the worst” to think about when this happens to someone you know. It’s the worst that her sisters lost her. It’s the worst that her last moments were full of pain and betrayal, because her husband was the one who killed her. And it’s the worst that her stepdaughter and grandchildren lost someone they loved and had the added trauma of knowing that their father/grandfather was responsible for it. It’s all the worst. But for me, the worst is that even with my favorite story about Mrs. Davis, the thing that I think about the most when I think about her is that she was murdered. I hate that and she deserves better.
But here’s the thing I want you to know about this book. It’s about her murder, yes, because it was awful and it was part of her story. But it’s also about her–her family and her life. And I think when you read it, you’ll understand why so many people (myself included) have just been devastated since it happened. Best of all, though, I feel like it gave her back to me. Which I know is overwrought and doesn’t make sense. (Mrs. Davis would probably X through this entire review, if I’m being honest.)
And one of the things that Stephanie attributed to me is the sentence I keep coming back to. She mattered.
There are so many people whose lives were better because they knew her. Her ending was awful in a way that no one deserved but the rest of the story is what makes a life. Hers was extraordinary and so is this book. I’m so proud to be in it and to have helped* Stephanie and I hope to have half the legacy Mrs. Davis does.
This is going to be the best book I read this year. Highly recommended.
* = Which is good, because I’ve also been crying since I finished the book.
** = in this case “helped” = “harassed her to finish.”