Atria Books, 2007
Fiction; 464 pgs
I remember the first time I read a book by Jodi Picoult. How moved I was by her ability to present several sides of a controversial topic that really made me think. Picoult is an author who likes to write about those hot button issues. She is able to take the darkest of subjects and make them approachable. I won't say she never shows a bias. She's only human. But I do think she (mostly) presents a fair and well rounded case for the subjects she takes on. I say this only having read five of Jodi Picoult's books.
The subject matter in her more recent books haven't interested me too much, but I've long been meaning to get to Nineteen Minutes. With all the school shootings that had been in the news, it was a topic on the minds of many. And it has only gained relevance with each new school shooting that's taken place.
Synopsis from the Publisher:
In Sterling, New Hampshire, 17-year-old high school student Peter Houghton has endured years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of classmates. His best friend, Josie Cormier, succumbed to peer pressure and now hangs out with the popular crowd that often instigates the harassment. One final incident of bullying sends Peter over the edge and leads him to commit an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling’s residents.
Even those who were not inside the school that morning find their lives in an upheaval, including Alex Cormier. The superior court judge assigned to the Houghton case, Alex—whose daughter, Josie, witnessed the events that unfolded—must decide whether or not to step down. She’s torn between presiding over the biggest case of her career and knowing that doing so will cause an even wider chasm in her relationship with her emotionally fragile daughter. Josie, meanwhile, claims she can’t remember what happened in the last fatal minutes of Peter’s rampage. Or can she? And Peter’s parents, Lacy and Lewis Houghton, ceaselessly examine the past to see what they might have said or done to compel their son to such extremes.
Nineteen Minutes is not meant to explain away all school shootings; it's just the fictional story about Peter, Josie, and their parents. It's about one school shooting, the impact it had on a community and those involved, and an attempt to understand why it happened.
In her usual style, Picoult tells the story from the perspective of multiple characters, allowing the reader to experience the book through the eyes of each of them. It's a difficult book to read on many levels. As a parent. As a human being. What Peter did was wrong no matter how you look at it. It would be easy to stop at that and look no further. Then again, it is human nature to try and understand why of how such horrible tragedies like this can happen. The answer, no matter how tragic in and of itself, doesn't make what happened right--it doesn't take the guilt away from the shooter, but it should get us to stop and think about our own behavior and responses as well as the community and institutions in which we live and work.
Peter isn't an easy character to like. I mean, look at what he did. I did feel bad for what he went through as a child; how he was bullied and picked on from such a young age and how little support and guidance he got from those around him who might have been able to help. I think Peter's defense attorney made some good points in that regard. Still, as awful as Peter was treated and as much as I could see the path set that he traveled on to get to where he was, it didn't excuse what he'd done.
Josie's own story paralleled Peter's in some respects. They both struggled in their own ways, Peter just more obviously. Josie was always pretending, trying hard to fit in and turning a blind eye, meanwhile losing herself in the process. It's sad really, given how close Josie and Peter once were. But it isn't hard to understand, unfortunately.
Before I had a child, I always tended to identify most with the children/teens. Now I seem to identify more with the parents. And so it came as no surprise that I took a particular interest in the sections involving the parents of Josie and Peter. I really felt bad for Peter's parents. How quickly the community turned against them and blamed them for their son's actions. That isn't to say they were perfect or couldn't have done anything differently--it just seemed unfair to treat them as guilty too, especially since, in their own way, they were victims in this too. But we do that, don't we? In our effort to understand the why of a tragedy we also seek to blame. And not just the perpetrator.
As for Alex, Josie's mother, the judge, she fought against giving the case up for quite a while. I was surprised she even considered keeping it, frankly, given her and her daughter's past with Peter and his family. I felt for her though, as she made efforts to get to know her daughter better, the shooting having shaken something loose in her, making her realize how distant the two of them had become.
I felt sad for Peter and Josie. I felt sad for the victims and their families and friends. At times I felt angry and frustrated. The shooting didn't have to happen. Peter didn't have to take it that far. If only someone had stepped in at an earlier point in Peter's life . . . Not that some didn't try in their own ways. It just wasn't enough. How can we really know though, until after the fact? It's easy to point fingers in the aftermath and say what should have been done differently. But by then it's too late. I guess we hope we learn from our mistakes so there won't be a next time. As I said, this was a difficult book to read.
There's more, of course. With Jodi Picoult there always is. And, yes, Picoult adds in her trademark twist--although I have to say it wasn't really surprising at all. The author had left pretty clear footprints in this instance. Even so, I have mixed feelings about the ending. And there were other things, small things, I took issue with, but nothing I can share without spoiling important points.
This is a book I could talk about for quite a while. It raises many salient points, including the no tolerance bullying policies at schools and how effective they really are, gun safety, and parental supervision/monitoring among others. It would make a great book club selection as many of Jodi Picoult's books would. This book opens the way for so much discussion about topics that are worth taking the time to explore.
You can learn more about Jodi Picoult and her books on the author's website.
Source: I bought a copy of this book for my own reading pleasure.