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.

The Hour I First Believed Summary

The Hour I First Believed spans nearly a decade in the life of a couple as well as several major national events including the shootings at Columbine, the attacks on September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the war in Iraq. The novel also ventures into the past of Caelum's family and the influence some of his ancestors had on history.

Caelum Quirk is working on his third marriage, which seems to be holding on by a thread. His wife, Maureen, had an affair with a man Caelum almost killed in a fit of rage. Nevertheless, the couple endured and made a valiant effort to make their marriage work. Tired of their life in New England, Caleum and his wife, Maureen, move to Littleton, Colorado where they both find employment at Columbine High School—Caelum as an English teacher and Maureen as a nurse. Both seem reasonably content with their jobs and their life in Colorado. Caelum receives word that his favorite aunt has just had a stroke. Caelum journeys back east to Connecticut to tend to her; he feels it's the least he can do given that she mostly raised him. While he is tending to Lolly, however, terror strikes back in Colorado.

As Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed to the teeth with weapons, make their way through the school, Maureen finds herself in the library meeting with Velvet, one of her most challenging students. When the killers make their way into the library and open fire, Maureen folds herself up and hides in a cabinet where she waits for hours. She hears gunfire, screams, and pleas from students hoping to be spared. Maureen is terrified, not knowing whether she will live or die in the cabinet. Maureen is finally freed from the cabinet by the police and she cannot help but look at the massacre's detritus on her way out of the library.

Caelum first learns of the attack on television while back in Connecticut and immediately flies home to be with Maureen. He learns bits and pieces about the event as he travels back to Colorado. He sees the faces of his former students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, on the television in the airport and learns that they are the alleged suspects. Caelum cannot believe that these are the same boys who served him pizza just days before. Caelum returns to an empty home and quickly races to one of the local elementary schools where the survivors are waiting for their loved ones.

Slowly, over the ensuing days, more information came to light about the attacks. Caelum and Maureen learn which students and colleagues were killed, and the identities of the killers are confirmed. Maureen is forced to relive the tragic events of that day by giving statements to the police and a host of investigators. Caelum and Maureen...

(The entire section is 1094 words.)