Wally Lamb's third novel, The Hour I First Believed, chronicles the experiences of a fictional survivor of the Columbine school shooting, Maureen, and her husband, Caelum Quirk. Effortlessly shifting between past and present, the novel examines generations of the Quirk family and the ripple effect of Caelum's ancestors' actions.
The novel opens as Caelum returns to Connecticut from Colorado to care for his beloved aunt who has suffered a stroke. While Caelum is away, Maureen goes to work expecting a typical day as a nurse at Columbine High School. As readers will know from their history books, that day was anything but ordinary. Maureen found herself in the library helping a student named Velvet to whom she had become very close; the two were so close, in fact, that Velvet called Maureen "Mom." Able to crawl into a cabinet in the school's library, Maureen escapes the attack. But her life, when it resumes, is anything but normal. Needing to escape from the scene of the crime, Maureen and Caelum move to Connecticut where they have inherited his aunt's farm. Reluctantly, Maureen accepts a job as a nurse in a nursing home, but to cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder, she develops a drug addiction that ultimately results in her accidentally killing an innocent teen on her way home from work.
Maureen is sent to the very same women's prison that Caelum's grandmother and aunt reformed many years ago. At first, she finds that the other prisoners take advantage of her fragile emotional state by frightening her; the guards are unsympathetic. Ultimately, however, she finds rewarding work in the prison's infirmary. While in prison, Maureen discovers comfort in religion and succeeds in convincing the administration to allow the inmates to have services.
In an effort to combat the loneliness he experiences once Maureen is sent to jail, Caelum opens his home to two refugees from New Orleans, Janis and Moze. Janis is fascinated by Caelum's old family letters and diaries which she ultimately weaves into a dissertation about Caelum's great grandmother.
Lamb navigates a challenging range of topics including post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor guilt, prison life, drug addiction, extramarital affairs, and even chaos theory. He seamlessly intertwines a host of national tragedies including the shootings at Columbine as well as the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. The novel explores events which touched Americans from coast to coast through the eyes of an ill-fated couple. Lamb tells his story effortlessly, including primary sources that are both real (the journal entries of Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) and imagined (letters written by Caelum's ancestors). Readers are sure to empathize with the complex characters Lamb has carefully created as they accompany them on the most difficult journey of their lives.