July 29, 2009

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

You may have heard of Wally Lamb before, even if you didn't realize it. He is the author of She's come Undone and I Know This Much is True (otherwise known as "the book with the babies on the cover"). This is the first of his novels I have read and I did so upon the recommendation of one of my colleagues in the English department. It tells the story of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, a married couple who move out to Littleton, Colorado after an affair nearly destroys their marriage. Caelum takes a job as an English teacher at Columbine High School and Maureen is fortunate enough to score a position as a school nurse there as well. The year is 1999....you can see where this is going.

On April 20, 1999, Caleum is back east dealing with the stroke and subsequent death of his aunt, but Maureen finds herself in the library of Columbine High School when the shooting begins. She hides and survives, but a good deal of the rest of the novel focuses on how her life as she (and Caleum) knew it ended on that day. I was very impressed by how Lamb handles the Columbine events. We all remember it and it can easily become sensationalized, but he does a good job of interweaving the character's (Maureen) experience with the factual evidence that we have of that day. It's a strange marriage of fact and fiction, but it works and it provides the launch pad for the rest of the novel.

The aftermath of Columbine for this couple is nothing short of devastating and there were times while reading this book that it almost got too painful for me to continue. Being somewhat unfamiliar with PTSD, I never realized how it can completely ravage one's ability to function in society, but Caelum and Maureen find themselves dealing with it on a daily basis. The amount of tragedy they both deal with is somewhat overwhelming. After fleeing Colorado and returning to the "sanctity" of Caelum's family farm on the east coast, the story takes a turn and begins to investigate Caelum's past and the skeletons that may be buried in his family's closet (or attic). Although this section of the novel doesn't have as much of the page-turning fire as the earlier portion of the novel, it is still well crafted and skillfully written.

By the end of this 700 plus page novel (yup....it's a big one!), Caelum has travelled through so much pain, suffering, and discovery. As our narrator, he has taken us along on an excruciating journey of self-discovery. This is not a "Columbine book." Lamb is truly interested in telling the story of Caelum, his family, and his experiences, however painful and sometimes severly tragic they may be. The ending is tied up perhaps a little too neatly, but it is appropriate since, at its core, this novel is about the human condition and what is means to truly "believe" in something. Caelum's faith, or lack thereof, is a subtle subplot that hovers under the surface until it finally emerges to take center stage in the final pages.

Overall, it was a book that I enjoyed. Not a re-reader for me, perhaps just due to its length, but the intersection of national history, family history, modern history, and straight-up fiction made for a fascinating novel. A solid 4 stars!


  1. Great review. I'm about 250 or 300 pages into the book and am now having a hard time putting it down. I'm curious to see where he's going with it.

  2. I keep going back and forth on this one. Now I'm tempted to give it a try.

  3. Welcome! Nice review. I haven't made it to this one yet. For 700 pages I want a definite pay off. Maybe the next long weekend I get. Glad you liked it.


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