Monday, April 14, 2008

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

I like books that get into the heads of characters; I like understanding what makes people tick, what makes them think the way they think, or act one way while someone with similar experience acts in the opposite. So when I saw Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult at the airport recently, I picked it up. I'd heard from more than a few kids my daughters' age group that Picoult has a real flair for understanding their generation. And after closing the cover on a gripping but terrifying read, I have to agree.

Ten students are gunned down in nineteen minutes in small-town U.S.A. Picoult's fictional account makes it clear that she gets exactly how such a tragedy might happen and why. She gets teenagers. Frankly, she gets adults too. She uses a multi-narrative approach to personalize what leads up to those terrible high school shootings that we read about in the papers. She exposes the terror that a little boy getting on a school bus feels every morning wondering what the kids who sit at the back are going to do to him today. We see that same little boy shrink further and further into himself, trying to make himself small enough that his tormentors won't notice him. With what he's experienced, it's easy to see how taking refuge in an artificial computer gaming world where he is the one in charge can warp him. Meanwhile, it's just as easy to sympathize with his parents initial protection and then blind hope that things are better even while it is clear that they are not. We even understand why his childhood friend take sides with his tormentors rather than risk remaining on the outside. Still, Picoult's characters are complex; even a boy like this can still hope for love. Even a girl who betrays her best friend might rethink her actions. By the time that small flame of hope is crushed though, we are afraid of what this last blow will unleash. Of course, the inevitable occurs; a trail of violence that few will be able to forget or forgive is the result. Wisely, Picoult doesn't stop with forgetting or forgiving though. She pushes us to understand despite the bewilderment and anguish that follow such an event. Nineteen Minutes is a work of fiction but Pictoult's fiction is wrapped in the fabric of a truth so real that it will make your heart ache. The question is, will it also open your eyes?

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