In the afterword to The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb says his long career in teaching influenced his decision to center his new book on the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives. For Lamb, the project forced some quite personal reflections:
Could I have acted as courageously as teacher Dave Sanders, who sacrificed his life in the act of shepherding students to safety? Would I have had the strength to attend those memorials and funerals to which I sent my protagonist?
Delving into the enigma of the killers’ motives, he points to the challenge that a novelistic treatment of the tragedy entailed:
The depth and scope of Harris and Klebold’s rage, and the twisted logic by which they convinced themselves that their slaughter of the innocent was justified, both frightened and confounded me. I felt it necessary to confront the “two-headed monster” itself, rather than concoct Harris- and Klebold-like characters. Were these middle-class kids merely sick, or were they evil?….Why all this rage? Why all these deaths and broken-hearted survivors?
Lamb asks worthy questions. Unfortunately for readers, he appears to have grown frustrated by his inability to answer them, because this 723-page book, which starts off with its focus on Columbine, devolves into a loose, baggy social-historical novel that spans two centuries and somehow manages to address at length such disparate issues as the Civil War, the advent of women’s prisons in America, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War. The specters of Harris and Klebold, so stark and affecting in the early pages of this book, recede with every tangential plotline.
The tenuous thread tying this all together is middle-aged English teacher Caelum Quirk, a thrice-married Connecticut native whose gravestone should probably read, “Romeo has nothing on me. Here lies fortune’s foe.” Example: His alcoholic father died when Caelum was 14, because the old man was fishing on a railroad bridge, passed out drunk, got hit by train, lost both legs, and bled to death.
As in Lamb’s two previous novels, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, messy, star-crossed lives are the norm, not the exception. We first meet Caelum and his third wife, Maureen, after their relocation from Connecticut to Littleton, where Caelum is an English teacher at Columbine and Maureen is a school nurse. Back in Connecticut, their marriage had been foundering. Maureen had cheated on Caelum, and he got revenge by attacking his wife’s lover; in turn, Caelum lost his teaching job. Hoping to revive their marriage (and to escape the gossip of small-town Three Rivers), he and Maureen move to Littleton. Why there? Because Maureen wants to be close to her father, who’s remarried and lives in Denver — and who, after Maureen’s mother died, used to sneak into his 11-year-old daughter’s room and masturbate before her.
This is among the first of many confounding plot developments in this novel — twists that complicate the narrative but ultimately distort to little purpose and generate no sympathy for the characters.
Much of that complication arises in the retrospective unfolding of Caelum and Maureen’s lives back in Connecticut, where they resided on the Quirk family farm, a 200-acre tract that also contains a 50-acre maximum-security women’s prison. The story behind the prison (not to mention its convenient location, right down the road from the family’s house) will play an enormous, exasperating role in the second half of the novel. The Quick Correctional Institute — named in honor of Caelum’s reform-minded female ancestors — is also the workplace of Caelum’s beloved aunt, Lolly, last in a line of family members who worked at the prison. With his mother dead of cancer and his childhood memories in the shadow of a withholding family overall, Lolly is the only relation who hasn’t contributed to Caelum’s jaded personality. In the beginning of The Hour I First Believed, the protagonist certainly doesn’t believe in much, least of all God.
In April 1999, these plot threads intersect: Lolly suffers a stroke, so Caelum returns to Connecticut to take care of her. While he’s gone, Harris and Klebold go on their rage-fueled rampage.
They’d been planning it for a year, hiding their intentions in plain sight on paper, on videotape, over the Internet. In their junior year, one had written in the other’s yearbook, “God, I can’t wait till they die. I can taste the blood now.” And the other had answered, “Killing enemies, blowing up stuff, killing cops! My wrath will be godlike!”
When the attack starts, Maureen is in the library, the site of the worst carnage. As Harris and Klebold mock and antagonize their victims, asking them if they believe in God, Maureen hides in a cabinet. Caelum, back in Connecticut and watching the harrowing footage on television, has no idea if she’s alive or dead, so he races back to Colorado.
Maureen survives the library scene, but she’s a shell of her former self. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She can’t sleep and has headaches and nausea. Certain smells and loud noises trigger flashbacks. On a trip to Home Depot, the scent of the lumber department reminds her of the inside of the library cabinet, where she’d hid and prayed. “Afraid,” she says. “I’m always afraid.” She becomes addicted to medication, while Caelum starts drinking more than usual.
Back in Connecticut, Lolly dies, and the farm with its tangled legal situation passes to Caelum. He decides that the safety of the estate — far away from Littleton and everything Columbine-related — is the best thing for his wife. Regrettably, the move does nothing for the momentum of this novel, which soon sinks beneath rediscovered family letters and diaries (many of them included in the book); uninteresting questions about Caelum’s actual parents; and schmaltzy plot developments, e.g., a husband and wife, refugees from Hurricane Katrina, come to live on the farm, and the wife, a postgraduate women’s studies major at Tulane, writes her master’s thesis on Caelum’s ancestors, in turn helping Caelum understand his past and (perhaps) himself.
In the dedication to his mother that prefaces the novel, Lamb says he had the title, The Hour I First Believed, “from the very beginning.” The phrase is also the very last line of the book. In retrospect, that makes sense, because this novel doesn’t read like it was a process of discovery. It reads like someone working backward (and the long way round) from a foregone conclusion.