Friday, January 28, 2011

Truth in Fiction: Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed

After finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire, while waiting for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final novel in Steig Larrson's trilogy, I picked up Wally Lamb's novel The Hour I First Believed. Larrsen's novels are certainly products of a lively imagination, and Lisbeth Salander's escapades in particular may stress the bounds of credibility.

Lamb's book, by contrast, is obviously the result of some meticulous research of the recent and past history. Somehow I had bypassed this book, even though I had enjoyed the two others he had written that I had read before. I had no idea as I began the book that the protagonist Caelum Quirk is an English teacher, nor that the pivotal event of the novel is the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999.

If Lamb had made up the story it might have seemed as inconceivable as Larrson's plots and Salander's shenanigans. But it is true. Quirk and his wife Maureen, a school nurse who hid in the library on that tragic day, are fictional, but so many of the specific events that unfold are not.

The school shootings occur early in the novel, though. The couple return to their native Connecticut after the tragedy, where Mrs. Quirk suffers from PTSD. Lamb also incorporates details about Katrina, the Iraq War, and even the Civil War and such important historical characters as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, discovered in the pages of the letters and diary entries of his female ancestors. He also tackles a wide range of controversial issues--the Iraq War, prison reform, alcoholism and drug abuse, and dysfunctional family relationships.

I might have enjoyed the novel just as much if Quirk had taught math or science, but the perspective of an English teacher, along with the references to literature, composition, mythological archetypes, and academia in general, rang true.

As I escape back to Stockholm and resume my willing suspension of disbelief, I continued to be haunted by Caelum Quirk's long journey toward what he recognizes as "the hour I first believed."


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