Another school shooting and plans and threats for two more all in the past few days. Articles, discussions, debates, and arguments arise once more over the government’s control of guns and the funding, or lack thereof, for mental health. I’m not going to blog about that. I’m going to blog about “DARK BOOKS,” as one reviewer titled her 5 Star review of Wally Lamb’s 2007 novel The Hour I First Believed, a story about Columbine.
THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED: When forty-seven-year-old high school teacher Caelum Quirk and his younger wife, Maureen, a school nurse, move to Littleton, Colorado, they both get jobs at Columbine High School. In April 1999, Caelum returns home to Three Rivers, Connecticut, to be with his aunt who has just had a stroke. But Maureen finds herself in the school library at Columbine, cowering in a cabinet and expecting to be killed, as two vengeful students go on a carefully premediated, murderous rampage. Miraculously she survives, but at a cost: she is unable to recover from the trauma. Caelum and Maureen flee Colorado and return to an illusion of safety at the Quirk family farm in Three Rivers. But the effects of chaos are not so easily put right, and further tragedy ensues.
While Maureen fights to regain her sanity, Caelum discovers a cache of old diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings in an upstairs bedroom of his family’s house. The colorful and intriguing story they recount spans five generations of the Quirk family ancestors, from the Civil War ere to Caelum’s own troubled childhood. Piece by piece, Caelum reconstructs the lives of the women and men whose legacy he bears. Unimaginable secrets emerge; long-buried fear, anger, guilt, and grief rise to the surface.
As Caelum grapples with unexpected and confounding revelations from the past, he also struggles to fashion a future out of the ashes of tragedy. His personal quest for meaning and faith becomes a mythic journey that is at the same time quintessentially contemporary—and American.
I’ve enjoyed, if one can call it that, Wally Lamb’s novels for some time. I guess you could call me a fan of his gut-wrenching stories that so beautifully capture the human experience. Lamb has said of his fiction, “Although my characters’ lives don’t much resemble my own, what we share is that we are imperfect people seeking to become better people. I write fiction so that I can move beyond the boundaries and limitations of my own experiences and better understand the lives of others. As challenging as it sometimes is to balance the two vocations, writing and teaching are, for me, intertwined.”
You can read Wally Lamb’s impressive biography HERE.
Here’s a portion of that 5 Star review on Amazon:
By Adriana on November 17, 2008 (slightly edited)
“If you allow it, this book will affect your mood. The story ties in actual events that took place at Columbine High with the people, places, and evidence tied into a fictional account of the protagonist’s life before, during, and after this most compelling, dark period of his life and the affect it takes on himself and his wife and the world around him. This is truly dark stuff, because you KNOW that someone, somewhere is experiencing exactly what you are reading in this book.”
What I liked about this review is the last statement: “…you KNOW that someone, somewhere is experiencing exactly what you are reading in this book.” And, this, I believe was Wally Lamb’s plan— to enable his readers to feel someone’s pain. And when we read DARK BOOKS that’s exactly what we do.
The shock and horror of Columbine repeats itself over and again and what can we do to stop it? Most of the mainstream, mass murder shooters are dead, most of their victims are dead but there are survivors and nobody speaks of them—parents of the shooters and victims, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, children, nieces and nephews, teachers, counselors, neighbors and friends. One report out of Oregon stated that many of the school’s students were veterans with PTSD. I can only imagine what suffering is going on. In The Hour I First Believed we can catch a glimpse of the transparent suffers, thanks to the imagination of Wally Lamb.
Most literary fiction “dark books” reveal an even darker world. The stories don’t make us laugh out loud. We don’t joyfully swoon over them. We squirm in the prevailing darkness. And when they are well written we celebrate them as great literature that makes us think.
Maybe we read “dark books” so that we can “move beyond the boundaries and limitations of our own experiences and better understand the lives of others” as Mr. Lamb so eloquently stated. And maybe when we identify with the survivors of mass murder we might be inspired to do something more about it.