In her latest emotionally charged novel Jodi
Picoult delves beneath the surface of small town America to
explore the ubiquitous issue of school bullying and the less
ubiquitous but increasingly frequent result of such bullying - a
school massacre. Peter Houghton has endured 12 years of bullying
at the hands of his peers, starting on his first day of
kindergarten. His older brother is no support, in fact he's part
of the problem; the school effectively does nothing; and Peter
stopped trying to confide in his well-meaning but misguided parents after his mother threatened to stop
him playing with the only friend he had in kindergarten (Josie
Cormier) if he didn't toughen up and stand up to the bullies.
As a result, slightly built and bespectacled Peter withdraws into a world of video games and computer programming, designing increasingly violent fantasy games and collecting real weapons, made easier because his father keeps guns in the house and Peter, of course, knows where the keys are kept. One day, following a final assault to his fragile ego, he walks into school and opens fire. With hundreds of witnesses and CCTV recordings of his actions, the fact that he was the one holding the gun is not in question. However, can he be held fully responsible for his actions, or does his attorney have a case when he likens Peter to an an abused wife suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who kills her husband in self-defense while he sleeps?
Told as a series of flashbacks from multiple points of view, Nineteen Minutes is a powerful read that kept me up until 3am. As always with Picoult, the issues are never black and white and the plot is never quite as simple as it might at first seem. Readers looking for easy answers won't find them in these pages. While virtually no character comes out as blameless in Nineteen Minutes, Picoult does not point the finger exclusively at any one individual or group - not Peter nor the bullies who drove him to take revenge; not the school system nor the parents who, arguably, let Peter down. However, she does find society as a whole at fault - a society that talks about inclusiveness and the American "melting-pot" but cannot tolerate differences; a society that allows impressionable young people access to extraordinarily violent images via computer games and TV, and then puts them in the position to easily obtain the weapons to carry out their fantasies.
One of the links in the sidebar is to a timeline of worldwide school shootings since 1996. It will be unlikely to surprise any reader to learn that the vast majority of these shootings have taken place in the USA. The few that have taken place elsewhere tend to be on a much smaller scale, or took place in a school but the perpetrator was not a child (such as 1996 massacre at Dunblane Elementary School in Scotland).
Picoult says she was drawn to write about a school shooting because, as the mother of three, she has seen her own children struggle with fitting in and being bullied. She also kept thinking about how it's "not just in high school where we have this public persona that might be different from what we truly feel inside...everyone wonders if they're good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, no matter how old they are. It's an archetypical moral dilemma - you act like yourself, and risk becoming an outcast? Or do you pretend to be someone you're not, and hope no one finds out you're faking?"
She says that Nineteen Minutes was a very hard book to research, she spent time talking with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office who investigated the Columbine shootings and provided her with materials which helped her get into the mindset of the shooters. She also spoke with a grief counselor to the families who lost children at Columbine, and to survivors of the Rocori shootings in Minnesota. One of the truths that struck her during her research is that while the media are quick to list the aberrant characteristics of a school shooter, the reality is that "they fit all teens at some point in their adolescence." Two other facts surprised her; the first being that for many shooters there is the thinnest line between suicide and homicide - they go to the school planning to kill themselves and decide at the last minute to shoot others, too; and that, psychologically, a single act of childhood bullying is as scarring emotionally as a single act of sexual abuse.
"I know that many of my readers are the age of the young characters in this book, and over the years, some have written me to ask if I'd write a book about bullying. But it wasn't until I began to connect what kids experience in school with how adults treat other adults who are somehow different that I began to piece together the story. Discrimination and difference at the high school level will never end until the adults running these schools can go about their own lives without judging others for their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. How ridiculous is it that America prides itself on being a melting pot, when -- as Peter says in the novel -- that just means it makes everyone the same?" - Jodi Picoult.
Interesting to note:
"If I could say one thing to the legions of teens out there who wake up every morning and wish they didn't have to go to school, it would be this -- and I'm saying it as both a mom and a writer: Stay the course. You WILL find someone like you; you WILL fit in one day. And know that even the cool kids, the popular kids, worry that someone will find out their secret: that they worry about fitting in, just like you do." - Jodi Picoult
This review was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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