Friday, August 17, 2007

"Nineteen Minutes"

My not-so-serious book group met at sunset yesterday, with beach chairs, blankets and wine and a cake decorated like the Texas flag as a sendoff for one of us who is moving there. I felt like blowing Taps for her. The prospect of moving to Texas for anything but an absurdly lucrative short-term gig would fill this heat-dreading, socially liberal-thinking New Englander with despair. But she seems in good spirits, and will be back for summers.

We relaxed and gabbed for three hours or so, relighting candles often in the humid breeze and passing drizzle. Somewhere in there we spent considerably less than 19 minutes discussing Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult.

The novel (Picoult's 14th, but the first I've read of hers) is about a small town high school shooting. The story is told from several characters' perspectives, in present and in flashbacks. Peter Houghton is an odd boy, cruelly and mercilessly bullied since earliest childhood. His parents are gifted in their work, clueless in their parenting. One day, Peter packs his backpack full of loaded guns. He goes to school and kills ten people, injures more. Some of his targets make sense revenge-wise, some don't. When apprehended, he says, "they started it."

Josie Cormier is Peter's only childhood friend, who eventually drifts away from him in favor of the popular kids, and struggles with losing herself in that group and particularly in a relationship with a scarily controlling boyfriend. Alex Cormier is Josie's mother, a newly appointed judge, thriving in her career but missing some things at home. Patrick Ducharme is the detective whose case this horror becomes, and Jordan McAfee, the attorney for Peter's defense.

It's a messy story, and it needs at least as many perspectives as Picoult provides, to provoke the right questions. Who to blame? Who to forgive? Where is our empathy -- can it be in many places at once?

I found my own to be spread like frosting, thicker in some places than others.

We did touch on some of the writing issues: Picoult's characters are very well-drawn, but is her Sterling High too full of cliches? (maybe, but it mostly works.) Is the ending too contrived (not necessarily, but I would've liked more from Josie's perspective), its promise of new life too hokey (yes, and as a reader, I resent having my chain so obviously yanked)?

But as a group of mothers, we focused mostly on the fears this book brought out. How do we raise* our children not to become the kinds of people that do these things? More importantly (by the numbers, at least -- there are far more bullies than murderers in the world), how do we raise children that won't be horribly mean people, if not killers?

How do we keep from raising children we one day don't know or recognize?

Scary stuff, as I ready my eldest for kindergarten in a few short weeks. I know that school can sometimes be a cruel place, and that she'll have to navigate some of its cruelty on her own.

I'm curious what high school students who read this book think of it. And of course I'd like to hear from you, if you did.

*I was always taught that one raises livestock and rears children, but when I put "rear" into the above paragraphs, it reads strangely. So I capitulated. Grrr. When did we start "raising" children instead of "rearing" them?

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