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Navigating trauma: Wally Lamb and school shootings

“The Hour I First Believed” by Wally Lamb examines an issue that is very prevalent to us today: mass shootings. Providing an honest perspective of our shattered world, Lamb follows the Quirks, a once-divorced couple attempting to patch together their marriage in Colorado. Caelum is an English teacher, full of sarcasm, wit and anger. Maureen is a school nurse at the same school, balancing Caelum’s harsh and angry edges with her own soft and sad curves.

Despite the flaws in their marriage, the Quirks are content with one another. When Caelum returns to Connecticut for family matters, however, Maureen finds herself trapped in a cabinet, protecting herself from the madness of the Columbine shooting. Lamb follows their suffering for the days, months and years to come, tracing the impact that such a disaster can have on a family’s life and those around them.

In recent years, we have all been affected by a mass shooting. Columbine was the first major school shooting, and at the time, no one thought it could get any worse. Lamb seems to share this idea, having written the book in 2008, four years before Sandy Hook and ten years before Parkland. Given their recent frequency, we have become even more desensitized to the mass shootings, wondering not how this could happen, but instead resigning to defeat.

Lamb brings us back to the raw emotion we experienced when mass shootings were a rare occurrence and our belief in the goodness of humanity first shattered. Lamb expertly navigates the hardships a family and a community experiences during such an extreme tragedy. He provides each victim of Columbine with a story, a life before and in some cases after, the shooting. In doing so, he provides all victims of mass shootings with a narrative beyond their tragedy.

Lamb’s characters are also uniquely relatable, capturing the different ways one might grieve or process such a traumatic event. He does not shy away from the less glamorous forms of grief: Maureen develops an addiction to narcotics, Caelum falls victim to his family’s history of alcoholism, and their relationship is shattered again, this time nearly beyond repair.

Scenes of community grief sessions capture the anger and sorrow experienced by the Littleton community, for those directly present during the shootings and those further removed. Lamb also gave consideration to the parents of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and the grief they must have experienced on losing their sons. Lamb accurately and powerfully captures how a tragedy can radiate outwards, like the aftershocks of an earthquake.

Despite the sorrow and challenges of the aftermath, however, Lamb leaves readers with a sense of hopefulness, often through the recurring symbol of a praying mantis. Indeed, despite the surge in mass shootings in the past decade, we should continue to have hope for the future and mobilize this hope as a way to stand up against a society that has encouraged violence for far too long. Lamb reminds us that trauma is hard, tough to navigate and confusing, but hope can shine as a way out of the dark and horrifying labyrinth.