May 31, 2007

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Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult (Atria Books, 2007, 464 pages)
Reviewed by Irene Labombarde news@hippopress.com

What causes a student to march into their school one morning and start shooting people? Were the victims targeted or just random? Could anything have been done to prevent this? After the memorial services are over, how do we get on with our lives? We’ve asked ourselves these questions all too many times over the past few years, just as recently as last month with the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Known for tackling controversial topics, New Hampshire author Jodi Picoult skillfully explores this timely issue in her latest book. 

Nineteen Minutes is set in the fictitious town of Sterling, N.H., a thinly disguised Hanover. The narrative begins on March 6, 2007, an ordinary day, and quickly travels from the mundane morning routine and departures for school/work to the not so ordinary point where shots are fired. Nine students and one teacher are dead, many wounded, and everyone is wondering exactly what happened and why.

The story smoothly alternates between past and present, and is told from several perspectives, so the reader is right there with the first detective on the scene, in the hospital bed dealing with injuries and survivors’ guilt, in the jail cell with the shooter, this not-yet-a-man whose entire life will be judged by those nineteen minutes. This technique works well — how many of us really ever thought of what it was like for the policeman who had to walk through the cafeteria that day, half-eaten sandwiches and notebooks on the tables, nothing unusual if it weren’t for the dead bodies and blood spatter? We experience his anxiety as he follows the shooter’s path of destruction into the locker room, not sure what he will find. We feel the mother’s anguish, as the frantic parents who learn that gunshots have been fired rush to the school to check on their children, only to discover that her baby was the shooter. We even get the perspective of the defense attorney, and see how his unpopular position defending this client affects his life.

Picoult provides a thorough history of what life has been like for Peter Houghton, the shooter. From the first day of kindergarten to his most recent and very public humiliation over a private love note that was e-mailed to the entire school, he has been bullied, ridiculed and abused by his peers. He’s always picked last for teams, gets shoved into lockers, gets pantsed in the cafeteria, and is relegated to the absolute lowest level of the social pecking order. We see the tender side of him, his intelligence and his loyalty to the few friends he had, along with the never-ending taunts that led to his coming unglued and seeking revenge. Picoult allows us to feel sorry for this boy, who certainly has been a long-suffering victim, but purposely stops short of justifying his actions.

There are diary excerpts interspersed throughout the book. The writer is never identified, and you eventually realize that it doesn’t matter. These provide insight into the workings of the teenage mind, its worldview and teenagers’ ability to process what is going on around them. The fact that these entries could have been penned by either Josie (the main character, a “popular” girl, a survivor-eyewitness) or Peter (the shooter) brings home the point that deep down we’re not all that different.

Although the main focus of the book is what led to the shooting, and its aftermath, Picoult also touches on other relevant issues — peer pressure, social status, self-image, living in the shadow of a more accomplished sibling, contending with an abusive boyfriend, questioning one’s sexual orientation, single parenthood, job-related stress, underage drinking, pregnancy, deception, betrayal, living in a small town with nowhere to hide. These details add depth to the characters and storyline, even if the stereotypes become a bit cliché. Overall, Nineteen Minutes is an engaging, emotional ride, one that asks thought-provoking questions but doesn’t have all the answers. A