Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  *

  It took Lacy three weeks to gather the courage to enter Peter's bedroom. Now that the verdict had been handed down--now that they knew Peter would never be coming home again--there was no reason to keep it as she had for the past five months: a shrine, a haven for optimism.

  She sat down on Peter's bed and brought his pillow to her face. It still smelled like him, and she wondered how long it would take for that to dissipate. She glanced around at the scattered books on his shelves--the ones that the police had not taken. She opened his nightstand drawer and fingered the silky tassel of a bookmark, the metal teeth of a lockjawed stapler. The empty belly of a television remote control, missing its batteries. A magnifying glass. An old pack of Pokemon cards, a magic trick, a portable hard drive on a keychain.

  Lacy took the box she'd brought up from the basement and placed each item inside. Here was the crime scene: look at what was left behind and try to re-create the boy.

  She folded his quilt, and then his sheets, and then pulled the pillowcase free. She suddenly recalled a dinner conversation where Lewis had told her that for $10,000, you could flatten a house with a wrecking ball. Imagine how much less it took to destroy something than it did to build it in the first place: in less than an hour, this room would look as if Peter had never lived here at all.

  When it was all a neat pile, Lacy sat back down on the bed and looked around at the stark walls, the paint a little brighter in the spots where posters had been. She touched the piped seam of Peter's mattress and wondered how long she would continue to think of it as Peter's.

  Love was supposed to move mountains, to make the world go round, to be all you need, but it fell apart at the details. It couldn't save a single child--not the ones who'd gone to Sterling High that day, expecting the normal; not Josie Cormier; certainly not Peter. So what was the recipe? Was it love, mixed with something else for good measure? Luck? Hope? Forgiveness?

  She remembered, suddenly, what Alex Cormier had said to her during the trial: Something still exists as long as there's someone around to remember it.

  Everyone would remember Peter for nineteen minutes of his life, but what about the other nine million? Lacy would have to be the keeper of those, because it was the only way for that part of Peter to stay alive. For every recollection of him that involved a bullet or a scream, she would have a hundred others: of a little boy splashing in a pond, or riding a bicycle for the first time, or waving from the top of a jungle gym. Of a kiss good night, or a crayoned Mother's Day card, or a voice off-key in the shower. She would string them together--the moments when her child had been just like other people's. She would wear them, precious pearls, every day of her life; because if she lost them, then the boy she had loved and raised and known would really be gone.

  Lacy began to stretch the sheets over the bed again. She settled the quilt, tucked the corners, fluffed the pillow. She set the books back on the shelves and the toys and tools and knickknacks back in the nightstand. Last, she unrolled the long tongues of the posters and put them back up on the walls. She was careful to place the thumbtacks in the same original holes. That way, she wouldn't be doing any more damage.

  *

  Exactly one month after he was convicted, when the lights were dimmed and the detention officers made a final sweep of the catwalk, Peter reached down and tugged off his right sock. He turned on his side in the lower bunk, so that he was facing the wall. He fed the sock into his mouth, stuffing it as far back as it would go.

  When it got hard to breathe, he fell into a dream. He was still eighteen, but it was the first day of kindergarten. He was carrying his backpack and his Superman lunch box. The orange school bus pulled up and, with a sigh, split open its gaping jaws. Peter climbed the steps and faced the back of the bus, but this time, he was the only student on it. He walked down the aisle to the very end, near the emergency exit. He put his lunch box down beside him and glanced out the rear window. It was so bright he thought the sun itself must be chasing them down the highway.

  "Almost there," a voice said, and Peter turned around to look at the driver. But just as there had been no passengers, there was no one at the wheel.

  Here was the amazing thing: in his dream, Peter wasn't scared. He knew, somehow, that he was headed exactly where he'd wanted to go.

  March 6, 2008

  You might not have recognized Sterling High. There was a new green metal roof, fresh grass growing out front, and a glass atrium that rose two stories at the rear of the school. A plaque on the bricks by the front door read: A SAFE HARBOR.

  Later today, there would be a ceremony to honor the memories of those who'd died here a year ago, but because Patrick had been involved in the new security protocols for the school, he'd been able to sneak Alex in for an advance viewing.

  Inside, there were no lockers--just open cubbies, so that nothing was hidden from view. Students were in class; only a few teachers moved through the lobby. They wore IDs around their necks, as did the kids. Alex had not really understood this--the threat was always from the inside, not the outside--but Patrick said that it made people feel secure, and that was half the battle.

  Her cell phone rang. Patrick sighed. "I thought you told them--"

  "I did," Alex said. She flipped it open, and the secretary for the Grafton County public defender's office began reeling off a litany of crises. "Stop," she said, interrupting. "Remember? I'm missing in action for the day."

  She had resigned her judicial appointment. Josie had been charged as an accessory to second-degree murder and accepted a plea of manslaughter, with five years served. After that, every time Alex had a child in her courtroom charged with a felony, she couldn't be impartial. As a judge, weighing the evidence had taken precedence; but as a mother, it was not the facts that mattered--only the feelings. Going back to her roots as a public defender seemed not only natural but comfortable. She understood, firsthand, what her clients were feeling. She visited them when she went to visit her daughter at the women's penitentiary. Defendants liked her because she wasn't condescending and because she told them the truth about their chances: what you saw of Alex Cormier was what you got.

  Patrick led her to the spot that had once housed the back staircase at Sterling High. Instead, now, there was an enormous glass atrium that covered the spot where the gymnasium and locker room had been. Outside, you could see the playing fields, where a gym class was now in the thick of a soccer game, taking advantage of the early spring and the melted snow. Inside, there were wooden tables set up, with stools where students could meet or have a snack or read. A few kids were there now, studying for a geometry test. Their whispers rose like smoke to the ceiling: complementary . . . supplementary . . . intersection . . . endpoint.

  To one side of the atrium, in front of the glass wall, were ten chairs. Unlike the rest of the seats in the atrium, these had backs and were painted white. You had to look closely to see that they had been bolted to the floor, instead of having been dragged over by students and left behind. They were not lined up in a row; they were not evenly spaced. They did not have names or placards on them, but everyone knew why they were there.

  She felt Patrick come up behind her and slide his arm around her waist. "It's almost time," he said, and she nodded.

  As she reached for one of the empty stools and started to drag it closer to the glass wall, Patrick took it from her. "For God's sake, Patrick," she muttered. "I'm pregnant, not terminal."

  That had been a surprise, too. The baby was due at the end of May. Alex tried not to think about it as a replacement for the daughter who would still be in jail for the next four years; she imagined instead that maybe this would be the one who rescued them all.

  Patrick sank down beside her on a stool as Alex looked at her watch: 10:02 a.m.

  She took a deep breath. "It doesn't look the same anymore."

  "I know," Patrick said.

  "Do you think that's a good thing?"

  He thought for a moment. "I think it's a necessa
ry thing," he said.

  She noticed that the maple tree, the one that had grown outside the window of the second-story locker room, had not been cut down during the construction of the atrium. From where she was sitting, you couldn't see the hole that had been carved out of it to retrieve a bullet. The tree was enormous, with a thick gnarled trunk and twisted limbs. It had probably been here long before the high school ever was, maybe even before Sterling was settled.

  10:09.

  She felt Patrick's hand slip into her lap as she watched the soccer game. The teams seemed grossly mismatched, the kids who had already hit puberty playing against those who were still slight and small. Alex watched a striker charge a defenseman for the other team, leaving the smaller boy trampled as the ball hurtled high into the net.

  All that, Alex thought, and nothing's changed. She glanced at her watch again: 10:13.

  The last few minutes, of course, were the hardest. Alex found herself standing, her hands pressed flat against the glass. She felt the baby kick inside her, answering back to the darker hook of her heart. 10:16. 10:17.

  The striker returned to the spot where the defenseman had fallen and reached out his hand to help the slighter boy stand. They walked back to center field, talking about something Alex couldn't hear.

  It was 10:19.

  She happened to glance at the maple tree again. The sap was still running. A few weeks from now, there would be a reddish hue on the branches. Then buds. A burst of first leaves.

  Alex took Patrick's hand. They walked out of the atrium in silence, down the corridors, past the rows of cubbies. They crossed the lobby and threshold of the front door, retracing the steps they'd taken.

  Nineteen Minutes

  Jodi Picoult

  A Readers Club Guide

  INTRODUCTION

  In this emotionally charged novel, Jodi Picoult delves beneath the surface of a small town to explore what it means to be different in our society.

  In Sterling, New Hampshire, seventeen-year-old high school student Peter Houghton has endured years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his classmates. His best friend, Josie Cormier, succumbed to peer pressure and now hangs out with the popular crowd that often instigates the harassment. One final incident of bullying sends Peter over the edge and leads him to commit an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling's residents.

  Even those who were not inside the school that morning find their lives in an upheaval, including Alex Cormier. The superior court judge assigned to the Houghton case, Alex--whose daughter, Josie, witnessed the events that unfolded--must decide whether or not to step down. She's torn between presiding over the biggest case of her career and knowing that doing so will cause an even wider chasm in her relationship with her emotionally fragile daughter. Josie, meanwhile, claims she can't remember what happened in the last fatal minutes of Peter's rampage. Or can she? And Peter's parents, Lacy and Lewis Houghton, ceaselessly examine the past to see what they might have said or done to compel their son to such extremes. Nineteen Minutes also features the return of two of Jodi Picoult's characters--defense attorney Jordan McAfee from The Pact and Salem Falls and Patrick Ducharme, the intrepid detective introduced in Perfect Match.

  Rich with psychological and social insight, Nineteen Minutes is a riveting, poignant, and thought-provoking novel that has at its center a haunting question: Do we ever really know someone? And who, if anyone, has the right to judge someone else?

  QUESTION AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Alex and Lacy's friendship comes to an end when they discover Peter and Josie playing with guns in the Houghton house. Why does Alex decide that it's in Josie's best interest to keep her away from Peter? What significance is there to the fact that Alex is the first one to prevent Josie from being friends with Peter?

  2. Alex often has trouble separating her roles as judge and mother. How does this affect her relationship with Josie? Discuss whether Alex's job is more important to her than being a mother.

  3. A theme throughout the novel is the idea of masks and personas and pretending to be someone you're not. To which characters does this apply, and why?

  4. At one point defense attorney Jordan McAfee refers to himself as a "spin doctor," and he believes that at the end of Peter's trial he "will be either reviled or canonized" (page 250). What is your view of Jordan? As you were reading the book, did you find it difficult to remain objective about the judicial system's standing that every defendant (no matter how heinous his or her crime) has the right to a fair trial?

  5. Peter was a victim of bullying for twelve years at the hands of certain classmates, many of whom repeatedly tormented him. But he also shot and killed students he had never met or who had never done anything wrong to him. What empathy, if any, did you have for Peter both before and after the shooting?

  6. Josie and Peter were friends until the sixth grade. Is it understandable that Josie decided not to hang out with Peter in favor of the popular crowd? Why or why not? How accurate and believable did you find the author's depiction of high school peer pressure and the quest for popularity? Do you believe, as Picoult suggests, that even the popular kids are afraid that their own friends will turn on them?

  7. Josie admits she often witnessed Matt's cruelty toward other students. Why, then, does it come as such a surprise to Josie when Matt abuses her verbally and physically? How much did you empathize with Josie?

  8. Regarding Lacy, Patrick notes that "in a different way, this woman was a victim of her son's actions, too" (page 53). How much responsibility do Lewis and Lacy bear for Peter's actions? How about Lewis in particular, who taught his son how to handle guns and hunt?

  9. At one point during Peter's bullying, Lacy is encouraged by an elementary school teacher to force Peter to stand up for himself. She threatens to cancel his play dates with Josie if he doesn't fight back. How did you feel when you read that scene? Did you blame Lacy for Peter's later actions because of it?. Do you agree or disagree with the idea that it is a parent's job to teach a child the skills necessary to defend himself?

  10. Discuss the novel's structure. In what ways do the alternating narratives between past and present enhance the story? How do the scenes in the past give you further insight into the characters and their actions, particularly Peter and Josie?

  11. When Patrick arrives at Sterling High after the shooting, his "entire body began to shake, knowing that for so many students and parents and citizens today, he had once again been too late" (page 24). Why does Patrick blame himself for not preventing an incident he had no way of knowing was going to happen?

  12. Dr. King, an expert witness for the defense, states that Peter was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of chronic victimization. "But a big part of it, too," he adds, "is the society that created both Peter and those bullies" (page 409). What reasons does Dr. King give to support his assertion that society is partly to blame for Peter's actions as well as for those of the bullies? Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

  13. Why does Josie choose to shoot Matt instead of shooting Peter? Why does Peter remain silent about Josie's role in the shooting? In the end, has justice been satisfactorily dealt to Peter and to Josie?

  14. Discuss the very ending of the novel, which concludes on the one-year anniversary of the Sterling High shooting. Why do you suppose the author chose to leave readers with an image of Patrick and Alex, who is pregnant? In what way does the final image of the book predict the future?

  15. Shootings have occurred at a number of high schools across the country over the last several years. Did Nineteen Minutes make you think about these incidents in a more immediate way than did reading about them in the newspaper or seeing coverage on television? How so? In what ways did the novel affect your opinion of the parties generally involved in school shootings--perpetrators, victims, fellow students, teachers, parents, attorneys, and law enforcement officials?

  16. What do you think the author is proposing as the root
of the problem of school violence? What have you heard, in the media and in political forums, as solutions? Do you think they will work? Why or why not?

  A CONVERSATION WITH JODI PICOULT

  Q: What drew you to the subject of a school shooting for the premise of a novel?

  A: As a mom of three, I've seen my own children struggle with fitting in and being bullied. It was listening to their experiences, and my own frustrations, that led me to consider the topic. I 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: Do 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?

  Q: How did you go about conducting research for Nineteen Minutes? Given the heart-wrenching and emotional topic of the book, in what ways was the research process more challenging than for your previous novels?

  A: This book was very hard to research. I actually began through my longtime legal research helper, who had a colleague who had worked in the FBI and put me in touch with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office--the people who investigated the Columbine shootings. I spoke with them, and they sent me DVDs and material that had never been made available to the public, which helped a bit to get into the mind-set of the shooters. The next contact I made was with a woman who served as a grief counselor to the families who lost children at Columbine. However, I really wanted to talk to a school shooting survivor . . . and yet I didn't want to cause anyone undue pain by bringing up what will always be a difficult subject. I was actually in Minneapolis, doing a reading, when the Red Lake shootings occurred. It was the most surreal feeling: there I was in a hotel, writing a scene in the book, and on the TV next to me was a reporter saying exactly what I was typing into my fiction. I went to the bookstore event that night and was telling folks about the way my two worlds had collided . . . and a woman came up to me afterward. She knew someone who'd survived the Rocori shootings in Minnesota and was willing to put me in touch with her. Through that connection, I spoke with not only two teachers who shared with me their story of the shooting . . . but also a young man whose friend died that day. It was his commentary that shook me the most--as a writer and a parent--and that became the most important research I did for this book.

 
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