I am not quite sure why I have such a fascination with the Columbine massacre. It is not an interest in the gruesome, morbid destruction, but rather, I think it is the psychological aspect of the tragedy: what would possess two teenage boys to take pleasure in such a senseless act? I think it also causes me to stop and take stock in my own high school career. I think every generation has its share of high school cliques: the “in” crowd of cheerleaders and jocks; the “artistic” group of bandies and thespians; the “greasers” who prefer to smoke in the commons rather than go to class —etc. They may go by different clique names in the 21st century – but they are the same groups. It is fascinating to me how some students can “seemingly” handle the complications of adolescence and eventually find their voice – while others are so defeated by the taunts and jeers of heartless peers. We had our share of tragic teenage suicides — but I do not remember the personal despair carrying over to widespread vengeance. What has caused this shift? Televised newscasts that give these sinister acts their “15 minutes of fame”? The easy access of information — any information on the internet? The demise of the American family as we “used” to know it where quantity time was as important as quality time? I am sure the issues are much deeper than this — but I am fascinated.
It is because I have the pre-disposed interest in the affairs of Columbine that I was immediately drawn to the book. I must admit that I was a bit daunted by the size of it (about 750 pages) – but the lure of delving deeper into the lives of those who actually survived this event helped me to overcome that fear. This is the first book that I have read by Wally Lamb. I own his first two books, but have just recently acquired them and have not read them. I understand that some think his early work is better than this later one. While I would not rate this book as top notch, I did really enjoy it and I do look forward to finding the time to read the others.
The Hour I First Believed is written from Caelum Quirk’s point of view. Caelum’s family has lived in Three Rivers, CT for generations and he is a middle-aged English teacher who is on his third marriage. Due to infidelity and some anger management issues, Caelum and his wife Maureen decide to make a fresh start and move to Colorado (Maureen has an estranged father who lives there with his new family and she is hoping to rekindle a father/daughter relationship). They both manage to secure jobs in the local high school — Columbine. He as an English teacher and she as the part-time school nurse. Life, though not perfect, seems to be going fairly well for this couple. They are learning to better communicate and both are trying to put their marriage on the right track.
On April 19, 1999 Caelum is called back to CT — his surrogate mother, an aunt, has just had a massive stroke and Caelum is the only surviving relative. Caelum in not in Colorado on April 20, 1999 and Maureen finds herself in the school library when the two boys enter the room laughing and shooting. Maureen survives, but is forever changed by the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (and I wonder how many other countless “survivors” were also irrevocably changed).
Eventually the Quirks move back to the family farm in Connecticut – in the hope that physically leaving the scene would allow mental healing to take place. Perhaps this would happen for some, but not for Maureen. While Caelum is also a “victim” of this horrendous crime, I do wonder what the story would have been like if told from Maureen’s point of view. I think I would have enjoyed hearing her thoughts as she tries to process all the events.
At this point in the novel there is a shift from the tragedy at Columbine to the unsettling discovery that Caelum’s family tree is not as he once thought. A large part of the novel focuses on Caelum’s ancestral background (mostly through letters and correspondence found in the farmhouse attic) – from the civil war through his early childhood. While this is a devastating discovery for Caelum, somehow (at least for me) this tragedy pales in comparison to Columbine. It almost seems as if Wally Lamb included two storylines in one epic novel. For my own tastes, I think I would have preferred the focus to remain on Columbine: a bit more detail into the repercussions of the disaster and the various ways the victims try to attempt to heal after this grave injustice.
I think I would rate the book a 3.5 out of 5. I truly enjoy Lamb’s writing style and his attention to detail. I think most of the characters are well developed, although I would have loved to have more insight into Maureen and Velvet – another Columbine survivor who also survived many other obstacles in life. If the book would have been half as long – with a singular focus – I think the rating would have been higher.
The book has left me thinking about a lot of life’s issues, however. For example: we are coming up on the 10th anniversary of Columbine — how have the other victims faired over the last decade? How have the Klebold and Harris families held up (they are as much victims as anyone else). What has society done to help this issue? I don’t mean the “no firearms” in school issue – I mean the enforcement of tolerance in the classroom? When will the bullying stop? When will students learn the valuable lesson taught by Queenie in the Berenstein Bears book of sacred wisdom: you don’t have to put others down to build yourself up?
I think above all this book has led me to realize that I still take too much of life for granted. I still assume that when my children leave the house in the morning, I will see them in the afternoon. This should be an expectation, but not an assumption. I tend to still sweat the small stuff, when in the scheme of a Columbine tragedy, most of what I worry about isn’t worth one drop of sweat. I still tend to look at what I don’t have and wish I did — rather than be very grateful for all the blessings I have been fortunate enough to receive and enjoy. I am sorry that anyone has to go through something as horrifying as Columbine, but I am grateful for gifted writers who help us all not to forget.