Friday, July 6, 2007

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

I am so glad I kept Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult past the library due date. It was so worth the 40 cent fine. (It would've been 60 cents, but they didn't charge me for the July 4th holiday.)

What I love about Jodi Picoult (well, besides the gorgeous curly red hair) is that she's not afraid to write about difficult subject matter--in the case of Nineteen Minutes, a school shooting in which nine students and one teacher are killed during that short period of time. What makes Picoult unique is that she takes what beliefs you thought were set in stone and turns them upside down. She makes you realize these issues are not black and white.

I'll admit that when I watch the news on television, I provide my own commentary to anyone who'll listen. (Annoying, I know, but it's a surefire way to start a conversation with the quiet husband.) A boy gets killed in Baltimore City at 2 am, and I ask why the hell was he out that late in the first place. A toddler gets kidnapped, and I ask why the parents thought it was okay to leave him by himself. A couple of teenagers open fire in a high school and massacre dozens before killing themselves, and I think the psychos certainly deserved to die. I mean, they were monsters without one shred of kindness in their souls, right? I'd never doubted such beliefs until reading Nineteen Minutes.

In the first chapter, Peter Houghton, a 17-year-old student at Sterling High in Sterling, N.H., walks into school carrying two handguns and two sawed-off shotguns after setting off a car bomb in the school parking lot. After being taken into custody, Peter tells the detective, "They started it."

Picoult then transports you from the present into the past and back and forth again. The story is told from the points of view of several characters: Peter; Josie, the girlfriend of one of the jocks killed during the shooting spree and Peter's oldest friend, who stopped hanging out with him when she became popular; Alex, Josie's mom and the judge assigned to the case; Patrick, the detective who took Peter into custody; Lacy, Peter's mom and Alex's former best friend; Lewis, Peter's father; and Jordan, Peter's attorney.

Picoult helps you to understand how the torture Peter endured nearly everyday from kindergarten on could push him to such extremes. Having endured my own fair share of bullying in middle school and high school, I felt bad for Peter and agreed that his tormentors needed to be stopped. But killed? No. Most of us have an internal "stop" button that prevents us from going that far. But I appreciate Picoult taking me on a journey through the shades of gray.

I also was drawn to the character of Lacy because, as a mother, I understand what it means to have hopes and dreams and unconditional love for a human being you helped to create. The media focuses on the families of those killed, and rightly so, but Picoult helped me to see that the mothers and fathers of the killers are victims, too, having lost children who are no longer the same people they tucked into bed every night.

Picoult is telling us that we can't make snap judgments. Our lives, our worries, our souls, our thoughts, our actions are much too complex. We need to delve deeper, look at a situation from all angles, understand that things aren't always what we see on the surface.

I've never before finished a book feeling a teeny bit sorry for the bad guy. Picoult did not give Peter's tormentors many redeeming qualities, but she succeeded in making Peter appear human, not quite the monster he is at first glance. I remember the Peter in my high school, the kid who always had a target on his back, though he didn't do much to deserve it. And I remember the obnoxious jocks and their snobby girlfriends who thought they were above it all and were downright cruel to this kid--simply because it gave them a sense of power and made them feel good because they weren't the ones being tortured.

I've also never finished a book with such conflicted feelings. On one hand, I can see--but not condone--Peter's reasoning; on the other hand, I feel so wrong for feeling that way.

Nineteen Minutes is not so much about the events leading up to a school shooting and its aftermath as it is about the fragility of our minds and emotions, the desire to belong, the confusion of figuring out who we are, the thickness of our skin, the impulsiveness of adolescence, our breaking points.

I remember vividly the horrors of not fitting in, how what everyone else thinks of you is more important than just being who you really are. It makes you wonder, out of the many kids teased by the same bullies in the same school, what causes one to snap and lash out? What makes the others decide to shrink as small as possible and wait it out, knowing that after graduation they can move into a new life where they are not branded "geek" or "freak," no one knows who they are, and they can build themselves from scratch?

It's been more than a decade since I graduated from high school. (Gosh, I'm old!) All the things that seemed important then are, to be frank, stupid and childish now. Enough said--except that I am secretly looking forward to the reunion when I can once and for all prove that I wasn't too fat or ugly to get married and have kids and get a chance to laugh at those who were thin, beautiful, and popular then but are sagging, bald, flabby, and single now.

Disclosure:  I borrowed Nineteen Minutes from the library.


Serena said...

The book sounds interesting...perhaps I will pick it up one of these days, but I have to finish this darn Patterson I am reading. I like when books make you have conflicting feelings about topics...much how I like my poetry also!

I can totally relate to being picked on, but I still wonder what makes me say no, I'm not going to shoot the entire class, and what makes a shooter say yes, shooting them is the only solution?

Anna said...

Maybe it's the degree to which you're picked on? But then again, something that only hurts my feelings a little bit might hurt someone else's much more. I guess it's one of those things that will always be a mystery. I don't think I want to completely understand a killer anyway.

Serena said...

As James Patterson's Alex Cross says, you have to get into the mind of a criminal in order to understand how they would commit a crime. LOL I guess that's necessary if you are a detective or if you write detective novels....HMMM...

Anna said...

True. But I'll leave that to you and Jimmy. LOL

Bethany said...

I remember getting picked on at school as well. It is one of hte most dehumanizing thing to be done to another person.. I read a book similar to this theme called "We need To Talk About Kevin". It really helped you to get inside and see how the parents we feeling and reacting. Thanks! I really love your book reviews.

Anna said...

Thanks! I really enjoy writing them. I love discussing the books I read!