Monday, July 5, 2010

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

I've had this book kicking around for about a year right now but haven't ever gotten around to actually reading it. Wally Lamb's most recent novel follows Caelum and Maureen Quirk's life. When we first meet them, they are both working at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado - she as a nurse and he as an English teacher. Their marriage is in shambles, in part due to her affair and in part due to his own social disorders. In April of 1999, Caelum returns to his hometown of Three Rivers, Connecticut in order to be with his aunt Lolly, who has had a stroke. She dies on his first night there, the night before Columbine's shooting. Maureen finds herself hiding in a cupboard in the Columbine H.S. library, hoping that the shooters don't kill her (they don't) and listening to some of her students get shot. She is unable to recover from the trauma, in spite of counseling. In order to help Maureen recover, Caelum and she move to Three Rivers permanently, and, while there, he discovers a treasure trove of diaries, letters and other papers left over from his family, which date back to the Civil War.

This book, while using Columbine as a tool, is mainly about the struggles and ravages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Maureen suffers from it and so does one of Caelum's college students in Connecticut, who has just returned (physically injured) from a tour of duty in Iraq. It looks at how PTSD impacts the survivors of awful events as well as how it impacts the people whose lives they touch - classmates, family, friends. In one stunning moment, Caelum's student tells a story about how he was holding his two year old daughter in his lap at his welcome home story while she was eating cake. His family had put an edible picture of him on the cake and his daughter had gotten a piece of his face. When she says "Daddy, I'm eating your face" he had a flashback to his friend's head being blown off and ended up throwing his daughter to the floor while in the power of the flashback.

How Wally Lamb describes the killing at Columbine and its aftermath is unforgettable. He uses real names - the names of the killers and the names of the victims. Lamb also did extesnsive research about Columbine. He used first hand sources - excerpts from the killers' diaries, videos and other manuscripts in addition to interviews - as well as secondary sources from the mainstream media. I also really enjoyed the occasional forays into Quirk family history that Lamb adds, perhaps even more so than the parts about PTSD and Columbine. I felt like it added a whole new dimension.  I was very impressed by Lamb's ability to get into the minds of the people that he created and talked about.  The novel went by quickly, in spite of its length.

Highly recommended.

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