They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side
– John Mayer, No Such Thing
For the eleventh grade summer reading this year, the kids were assigned the book Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Out of curiosity, I read it as well. I have to say that quite honestly, it was one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to read. Not that it was difficult to read, but it brought up emotions and memories that I have managed to not dredge up since my own ten-year reunion.
In the small town of Sterling, New Hampshire, life seems pretty idyllic. That is until one day one of the students at the high school comes in with pipe bombs and guns and goes on a methodical rampage. The end result is ten dead, and many more wounded. Peter Houghton, the shooter, is found in the locker room, unable to commit his pre-planned final act of killing himself.
Among the wounded is Josie Cormier. Her mother, Alex, is a local judge who will likely be hearing the case. Josie’s boyfriend, Matt Royston, is among the dead.
Nineteen Minutes skips around in time, detailing how a person like Peter Houghton comes to be. I have to say that from my experience, it’s pretty dead on. When you are the outsider type who actually exhibits a little compassion for fellow students who are generally considered to be a little weird, you make yourself a target. Peter and Josie were friends for many years, the friendship only breaking apart when Josie gives in to the pressure to belong while Peter remains an outsider. Years of abuse by his fellow students, which the teachers and administration choose to ignore, finally culminate in his wanting to end it the only way he knows how.
However, Nineteen Minutes also manages to give some insight into what it’s like to be one of the “cool kids”. For Josie, it’s not all sunshine. Her relationship with Matt is abusive, although she hides it. A girl who is her closest friend really isn’t that. She gets into Josie’s email and spams it around the school. However, Josie puts on a brave face and pretends because she is so afraid of becoming like Peter.
The adults in their world seem to write most of what happens up until the point of the shooting as a normal part of growing up. Peter’s parents are still grieving over the death of their older son, Joey, who was also known to pick on his younger brother. Peter is allowed to retreat to his computer in his room and is not monitored at all. His father has taught him to hunt, thinking it is the responsible thing to do, never realizing that one day his son will finally put the training to good use.
Much of Nineteen Minutes focuses on Alex and Josie, and their relationship, or lack thereof. Alex has no clue how to relate to her daughter. She’s so busy being a judge and making sure things appear a certain way to the outside world that she doesn’t see how that’s affected the two of them.
For anyone who’s suffered through bullying in school, Nineteen Minutes will be a difficult read. Picoult got it right, better than any other book I’ve ever read that tries to capture what it’s like to be in high school. I never gave much thought that it wasn’t easy being popular or cool, though, until reading this. I just took away the satisfaction from my own ten-year reunion that the best years of their lives for those kids were the four when they were in high school while mine had been much better beyond it.
The read is very good. I could have burned through the book quite easily as it pulled me along with events and wanting to know what was going to happen. Picoult goes back and for between the present time, in the aftermath of the shooting, and the years of history that culminated in the shooting. I didn’t find this to be confusing at all, and the only reason I had to put the book down and take a breather was the subject matter was so close to me.
Picoult has a few minor subplots going on, mostly involving characters she’s brought in from previous novels. One involves Peter’s lawyer, and I thought he was a good mirror for parents who look at their own children in the aftermath of such an act and wonder if their child will one day be a shooter or a victim, and what they can do to stop it. The other character was the lead detective in the case who ends up hooking up romantically with another character in the book, which led to my biggest gripe.
SPOILER – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!
I hated the ending. It wasn’t so much the surprise twist Picoult puts in, but rather the way she wraps up Alex Cormier’s life for her. I hated seeing her happy romantically and in her career once she had lost her daughter, and I especially hated it that she was pregnant again, as if she was getting a chance for a “do-over” because she didn’t like the way raising a child had turned out the first time. Up until that point, I had no real complaints about the book, but the ending left me a little disgusted in that it seemed as if a parent didn’t like the way a child had turned out, they should just have another one and try again as if they were baking a cake that fell.
A difficult read for those who have experienced bullying in school, I suspect those who have been on the other side will be even more frustrated with Nineteen Minutes. In today’s world where it seems we have lost compassion for our fellow man and are concerned only with “me first”, those who are at the top of the heap by marginalizing those beneath them will resent their being any compassion toward those they feel somehow deserve being tormented at their hands simply because they don’t fit in. I can remember reading a year after Columbine in an interview with students at the high school they were still echoing the sentiments that for some reason people deserved to be tormented if they didn’t fit in. School shootings have become another symptom of our selfish society where we don’t care about anything outside of our own little corner of the world. Who cares if thousands are losing their jobs as long as my portfolio is increasing? Who cares that another human being is feeling suicidal, as long as I get to look cool to my friends? It’s all the same.
Nineteen Minutes is a difficult book due to the emotionally charged issues it raises. I suggest people read it with an open mind and think honestly about the subject. I think it was a great choice for a discussion book in high school for summer reading.
Book Review: Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult – School Shooters are Made, Not Born
They love to tell you