The Hour I First Believed

By Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb takes us on a journey into the heart of a man struggling to make some sense of his life and ultimately to discover what he believes in.

Caelum Quirk teaches at Columbine High School and his wife Maureen is the school nurse. Because of a family emergency, Caelum is absent on the tragic day of the Columbine shootings. Maureen is not so lucky, and finds herself hiding in a library cupboard, waiting to die. When Caelum rushes back to Colorado he is overjoyed and relieved to find his wife unhurt physically, but neither of them can comprehend the devastating psychological harm that Maureen has suffered. She is damaged to such a degree that their whole relationship, how they fit together, how they fit into this world, is called into question. Searching for some comfort and stability in their lives, they return to their old family farm in Connecticut. They struggle together to find sanity and order and seem to be making a start, but before any hope can be found, more tragedy befalls them.

I liked the early part of the book very much and kept hoping for the best for Caelum and Maureen. Their efforts to heal themselves and each other and the many problems they faced seemed honest and genuine. But the second half almost felt like a new book. Caelum’s complicated family history is brought to light and we see its effect on him and others. We read about prison life for women, both current and historical. While both of those story-lines are fascinating on their own, they feel somewhat distracting from the main theme. Many other topics are touched on as well, such as chaos theory, alienation, drug addiction, quests, hope, despair and belief. The multitude of threads make the book less cohesive and the amount of tragedy seems excessive. Although it is a long book at over 700 pages, the ending felt too abrupt. Some loose ends were tidied up unnecessarily, while others were not worked out satisfactorily. Maureen’s “salvation” did not ring true and getting rid of her felt like a cop-out. Surely, the metaphor of Caelum’s quest did not require him to actually be alone to face the world at the end?

Despite some of the criticisms, I could not put the book down. Lamb has created complex characters facing devastating problems. He poses hard questions about violence and its aftermath. How do people deal with its long-lasting effects? How do they live their lives afterwards? What do they believe in to help them get through it and get back to “normal”? Is that even possible? Thought-provoking questions for all of us to ponder.