Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Everyone Is Someone's Child

Nineteen Minutes
by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is an interesting writer. She is able to tackle serious ethical issues in a way that puts a human face on the dilemmas at hand. The stories read quickly and are believable and engaging. Her books are pretty formulaic, though - I have read four of them and can now quickly spot her pattern. There is always the aforementioned crisis, and then slick, good-looking lawyers to represent the various sides of the issue. There is alway a romance that blooms in the middle of all the legal tension - one that the reader can spot coming a mile away. There is often an unplanned pregnancy that pops up to enliven things. The stories are usually set in small New England towns, which makes the connections between the characters that would seem implausible in a large city a little more believable. For example, in Nineteen Minutes the Superior Court judge assigned to the case is also the mother of one of the kids who is injured in the shooting. It is still a little contrived, but less so because of the locale. In a Picoult novel, the story culminates in a trial, and there is always some twist thrown in in the final 10 pages that makes everything suddenly different. I do not begrudge Picoult this pattern - she has hit upon a niche that is working for her, and there is more to like about her books than not.

Nineteen Minutes is the most heart-wrenching of her books that I have read to date. It is about a school shooting, where (as in Columbine or Blacksburg) a lonely, bitter boy ("Peter") who has been picked on and isolated his whole life snaps one day and kills 10 students and wounds 18 others. A lot of the lead-up to the shooting is told in flashbacks, and Picoult's depiction of the teens and their cruelty to Peter is very well done. Picoult has a good ear for dialogue, and uses it well to move this narrative along.

Picoult is able to make Peter into a sympathetic, if not likable, character. Without condoning what he has done, she exposes his vulnerability and isolation in such a way that we see him as a pitiable human being and not as a monster. Peter's parents, Lewis and Lacy, are also characters with whom we can identify. Picoult is able to depict their shock and disbelief in such a way that we come to understand that even though Peter has physically survived the shooting spree, Lewis and Lacy have lost their child as surely as have the parents of the dead.

The disappointment is the community's treatment of Lewis and Lacy. They find themselves as ostracized as their son was, with no one to comfort them through their grief. This is human nature though, isn't it? We even see it in the church, the place that is supposed to be balm for all wounds. We do a pretty good job of being present for people in your typical crises - illness, injury, even death. It is much harder to visualize how we would care for Lewis and Lacy if they were part of a mainline congregation. I hope that people of faith would not lash out at them, as the characters in the book do. Even if people were not blatantly mean, though, it would be easy for Lewis and Lacy to become pariahs just because people would have no idea WHAT to say to them. Ideally, a community of faith is a place that would reach out to people in their situation with the same compassion that God would show, bearing the burden along with them.

Someone who reads Nineteen Minutes will think about it long after the book is returned to the shelf - this is often the case with a Picoult novel. She has a way of creating windows with her words through which we can witness the pain of another.

Reverent Reader


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