Book blurb: Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes is Jodi Picoult’s latest novel.  Author of past bestsellers The Tenth Circle, Vanishing Acts, My Sister’s Keeper, Second Glance et al, Picoult (pronounced Pee-koh) has a gift for focusing on significant and current ethical topics, gives them a twist, includes a courtroom drama and a touch of romance and relationship interest.  Plot and characters involve and interest the reader and provide talking points galore for book clubs.  Despite the possible Oprah book-club designation, Picoult is never trite.

The protagonist of Nineteen Minutes, 17-year old Peter Houghton, has been bullied and tormented every day of his entire school life, and finally fights back in a fairly dramatic manner.  The school shooting, echoing Columbine, Thurston High and Red Lake, leaves ten dead and nineteen injured.   As with many Picoult novels, the setting moves to courtroom drama, where the life and motives of Peter are revealed through flashback and reports.  Other characters – Josie Cormier, former best-friend of Peter who went over to “the dark side” of the popular group (many of whom are targeted in the shooting), her mother, Peter’s parents, the detective and defence lawyer on the case – are also revealed and their own lives and interactions revealed in Picoult’s sympathetic and involving style.

Nineteen Minutes is a very sensitive, perceptive and significant portrayal of a divisive and emotional  issue.  Picoult pulls no punches, and the novel moves along at a cracking pace.

Characters are not the slightest bit one-dimensional; they are complex, imperfect, flawed, and not always likable.  A prime example is Josie Cormier, Peter’s one-time friend; she is insecure, knows she’s faking her outward persona and is ashamed of her behaviour and sorry for Peter, yet is so desperate for popularity and acceptance from the “in” group that she goes along with the bullying, tormenting etc, so betraying her friendship with Peter.  She also loves and hates her abusive boyfriend in the name of retaining position and status.  (I have to say that most of the kids in the “in crowd” seem totally confident and without doubts of their “in-ness” despite what is later said about all kids faking it … I have my doubts about that personally!)

By the end of novel the reader is one hundred per cent “with” Peter, almost regardless of his actions, feeling how desperate, overwhelmed and trapped in the situation he felt that for him it was the only way out.  One can’t really blame him, but can understand why he was driven to such a desperate act, even whilst despising his actions as utterly wrong and distasteful.  So were all those kids wrong and distasteful – they got what they deserved … including or particularly Josie though she at least is allied once again with Peter at the end.

Hmmm, anyone for gun laws?  Picoult does not pound the issue that if Peter had not had access to guns and ammo, had a great depth of knowledge of guns and hunting, and lived in a state with the motto “Live Free Or Die”, the results may not have been the same,  Indeed, Picoult shows great restraint in not getting up on a soapbox and making her novel a platform for gun control, for keeping it to the issue of bullying and to what actions it can drive both victims and perpetrators.  Yes, Peter Houghton still would have done something, his motives and state of mind are clearly established, and kids still would have died, but a school shooting of such magnitude?  Perhaps not…

Picoult highlights the mixed messages media and government send to people when she makes parallels with the Columbine shootings and the recriminations and accusations against singer Marilyn Manson that followed.  In Nineteen Minutes the band “Death Wish” gets blame and emotional media coverage for being the “cause” of teen violence when in fact the band is a voice for lonely, isolated youth.  The band’s lead singer points out that when one distraught kid with access to guns takes a certain action then it is music and a band with a certain image and name that gets the blame; at the same time as the nation is sending it’s kids out to get shot in the desert somewhere.  This resonates clearly with the interview with Marilyn Manson in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling For Columbine; Manson comments on the accusations the band faced, and how that same day saw the heaviest bombing by the US on Kosovo.  (In the interview Moore asks “What would you say to the children of Columbine if they were here today?” to which Manson replies, “I wouldn’t say a damn thing to them, I would listen to them and that’s what nobody did.”)

I have to admit that I LOVE the premise of Peter’s computer game Hide & SHRIEK (wherein the player goes from room to room within a high school, attacking and killing the jocks, beauty queens et al encountered with whatever weapons are on hand) – also the fact that one of Picoult’s own kids came up with the idea and the gaming and computing information and tips within the novel.  It is also worth noting that the makers of computer game Vice City have created a new game called Bully for release later this year in which a similar premise unfolds – that the player gets pay-back on jocks, beauty queens and others who have victimised the player (not surprisingly, this game has already come in for huge amounts of criticism and been subject to bans).

Computers and gaming are not a cause of school/teen/other violence.  Quite the reverse – they tend to act as an escape and a safety valve – not a cause.  Yet gaming and violence in media gets such bad press that, along with “heavy metal music”, it is the first reason the baying hounds of the media leap at when a sound-bite is required.

A part of the novel I particularly enjoyed was the re-introduction of past characters.  Picoult may well be criticised for “recycling” but I appreciated and enjoyed the character development and history of Jordan/Selena from The Pact and Salem Falls, and Patrick Ducharme from Perfect Match, and how they’ve changed.  Though I must say that the detective is somewhat prolific – does he honestly not know that Tara Frost, daughter of his love Nina from Perfect Match, is in fact his child?  (do the mathematics)  Some detective he is … I also found the love affair with Alex to be a trifle, well, banal and totally predictable even before they met, they were just “so perfect for one another”; Picoult occasionally descends to Mills & Boon/chick lit, for example Ross/Meredith in Second Glance and Jack/Addie in Salem Falls.  Alex’s pregnancy was a little too “much”; as though implying that getting knocked up was and should be The Perfect Ending for every woman despite family drama, career, murder, whatever.  However in balance I thought the ambivalence of Josie’s feelings toward her mother/Patrick was well handled and Alex/Josie’s interaction vis a vis Patrick’s presence gave nice character touches and dialogue.

I guessed Picoult’s usual ‘surprise twist” ending early on – though I honestly did not TRY to! – but it’s a testament to Picoult’s writing that it still did not effect or lessen the impact.  The various denouements and ramifications/results of the incident/s at the heart of novel were satisfying and did not take the easy way out.  There was no Perfect Ending for many of the central characters, and I would have been exceedingly disappointed otherwise.


NOTE:  Jodi Picoult made copies of Nineteen Minutes available to local schools in her town prior to the official release date – 6 March 2007 – in the hopes that it would open discussion and also possibly prepare “the locals” for any publicity that might arise.  The response was unexpected; many many parents kept their children away from school on 6 March 2007 because they believed that “a shooting or similar incident” would occur, triggered by the book or as occurred in the book.  Emotional outbursts were posted on the forum on Picoult’s site, including such comments as “Thank you for bringing fear to our home town!”.  Because of course if someone had written about a school shooting to occur on a certain date, said incident would automatically happen.  Shades of Orson Wells’ War Of The Worlds radio broadcast anyone?  Whatever; it is yet another example of the major problem USAns have identifying the difference between reality and fiction.


On a personal note, I suffered years and years of similar behaviours through primary and high school to what the protagonist of Nineteen Minutes endures, merely because I was small, sickly, sensitive and different.  Bullying, verbal and physical abuse, insults, social ostracism, teasing and tormenting were the order of the day, along with attendant feelings of absolute powerlessness, vulnerability, and a complete inability to cope/respond.  I received absolutely zero help or even advice – let alone intervention – from teachers or counsellors (in fact a couple of teachers frequently joined the perpetrators in the fun) despite the private school’s proudly advertised “zero tolerance policy” and “commitment to pastoral care”.

Yes there have been ramifications for me in my adult life; low self esteem, I am still “shy” and nervous around people, untrusting, defensive, plus I still have screaming nightmares at the age of 37 (except the ones where I take out an uzi and get payback, now those are good dreams – so go ahead, call me sicko).

What should I have done, or could have done anyway?  Being small, terrified, powerless, frozen like a rabbit in the headlights (thanks to Thom Yorke for the brilliant song of that name) and incapable of verbal come-backs, with no one to turn to for assistance or advice on how to make the torment STOP.  “Frozen” is a good word, actually, to describe my state, emotionally and mentally.  If I hadn’t been so frozen, and if I had had access to guns – I knew how to load and shoot a shotgun owing to years of shooting at bunnies and rocks on the family farm – who knows what could have happened.  I don’t believe there has been a school shooting in Perth or even Australia to date, and perhaps it will be avoided with such tight gun control laws, but it is only a matter of time.

So one has to ask:  Where does the guilt, the fault and the flaw lie?  It’s easy enough to blame societal pressures, but before that responsibility lies with the parents – who fail to teach their kids empathy or conscience (although it can be debated that empathy is not a natural state for teens; it does have to be taught/enforced); with teachers for not intervening or responding; and with school administrations, for responding in a manner that backfires on the victim, or having meaningless zero tolerance policies, or at any rate lacking rules set in stone for how to act when bullying is witnessed and sensed. 

As Nineteen Minutes shows, the “zero tolerance” policy is totally ineffectual and meaningless, and failure cannot be avoided if teachers and school administration have no guidelines as to what to do in the event of observing and having knowledge that bullying is occurring.

Overall, the issues Jodi Picoult raises in Nineteen Minutes are extremely important, beautifully handled with sensitivity, sympathy and deep understanding of how people’s minds work;  Picoult should be congratulated and awarded for writing on such a delicate and momentous topic.  I truly hope it triggers debate and activism on these issues – bullying; the treatment of and response to victims; not to mention gun control/access to guns.

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  • jules aka otterkat  On Sunday 22 April 2007 at 8:25 am

    whoa, I had no idea at the time, but whilst I was writing this post the Virginia Tech shootings were breaking news; and the day I posted the entry up was the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy. A tad freaky …

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