The Hour I First Believed
New York Times Bestseller
The profound and compelling story of a personal quest for meaning and faith from Wally Lamb, #1 New York Times bestselling author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True
“The beauty of The Hour I First Believed, a soaring novel as amazingly graceful as the classic hymn that provides the title, is that Lamb never loses sight of the spark of human resilience. . . . Lamb’s wonderful novel offers us the promise and power of hope.”
When 47-year-old high school teacher Caelum Quirk and his younger wife, Maureen, a school nurse, move to Littleton, Colorado, they both get jobs at Columbine High School. In April 1999, Caelum returns home to Connecticut to be with his aunt who has just had a stroke. But Maureen finds herself in the school library at Columbine, cowering in a cabinet and expecting to be killed, as two vengeful students go on a murderous rampage. Miraculously she survives, but at a cost: she is unable to recover from the trauma. Caelum and Maureen flee Colorado and return to an illusion of safety at the Quirk family farm back east. But the effects of chaos are not so easily put right, and further tragedy ensues.
In The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb travels well beyond his earlier work and embodies in his fiction myth, psychology, family history stretching back many generations, and the questions of faith that lie at the heart of everyday life. The result is an extraordinary tour de force, at once a meditation on the human condition and an unflinching yet compassionate evocation of character.
Praise For The Hour I First Believed: A Novel…
“Lamb . . . has delivered a tour de force, his best yet. A” — Entertainment Weekly
“A page-turner. . . . Lamb remains a storyteller at the top of his game.” — Craig Wilson, USA Today
“Too compelling to put down . . . a richly textured story . . . moving, funny, and completely unpredictable.” — Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Every character is rendered with vivid, utterly convincing depth. . . . A heck of a page-turner.” — Dallas Morning News
“Lamb, a maestro of orchestrating emotion . . . knows how to make his fans’ hearts sing.” — Corrie Pikul, Elle
“Wally Lamb is a remarkable talent.” — Columbus Dispatch
“Lamb has crafted another affecting, engrossing tome about complicated, interesting characters.” — Cherie Parker, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A soaring novel as amazingly graceful as the classic hymn that provides the title” — Miami Herald
“Lamb does an extraordinary job narrating some of the most terrifying tragedies of the past 10 years....an epic journey. Grade: A.” — Rocky Mountain News
“When you put Lamb’s newest novel down, it will be reluctantly. It’s that good.” — Knoxville News-Sentinel
Harper Perennial, 9780060988432, 768pp.
Publication Date: August 4, 2009
About the Author
Wally Lamb is the author of five New York Times bestselling novels: She’s Come Undone, I Know This Much Is True, The Hour I First Believed, Wishin’ and Hopin’, and We Are Water. His first two works of fiction, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, were both #1 New York Times bestsellers and selections of Oprah’s Book Club. Lamb edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself, I’ll Fly Away, and You Don’t Know Me, three volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for two decades. He lives in Connecticut and New York.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
The Hour I First Believed deals with many themes: violence, family, the quest for meaning and connection, faith, and the power of chaos to change our lives. These themes are stitched together by two opposing emotional states—despair and hope. How are these two oppositional states intertwined in the story? How are they demonstrated in the story? Use any of the character’s lives as an example.
Do you believe that out of chaos—tragedy—comes understanding and hope? Is this always the case?
Can perpetrators of chaos be victims themselves? Which, if any of the characters, demonstrate this? If you answer no, why not?
One of the major themes of the book is violence. Can violence ever be justified? Is it sometimes necessary? Think about the sacrifices of Caelum’s ancestors who gave their lives to free the slaves and save the Union. Or those who have lost their lives in other conflicts. Is war always immoral?
Scientists say we all have the capability of violence. What stops some from hurting others? What might propel the unassuming to commit a tragic act? How is this evident in the novel?
Discuss the main characters. What were your impressions of Caelum and Maureen? Of Velvet? What about the real-life perpetrators of Columbine, Eric and Dylan? Did your impressions of these characters change over the course of the novel? If so, why?
How does Caelum and Maureen’s relationship evolve from the beginning of the story to its conclusion? Why did they stay together? Would either have been justified in divorcing the other? If they had separated, what might have happened to them?
Why does Velvet call Maureen Mom? What is their relationship? Why do you think they were able to form such a powerful bond? What did each give to the other? What is Velvet’s relationship to Caelum? Why does he find it so difficult to sympathize with the girl when she is his student?
How does the arrival of Katrina survivors Janis and Moze affect Caelum’s life? What does their appearance add to the story?
Velvet tells Caelum that she Googled his name and discovered it was a constellation. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a constellation is “a group of stars forming a recognizable pattern that is traditionally named after its apparent form or identified with a mythological figure; a group or cluster of related things.” Does the novel’s main character embody this definition? How so?
Do you think Caelum could have found his hour of belief without the events he experienced? Do you think he could have learned to believe without discovering the stories of his parents, his aunt, and other family members who went before him?
What does the title The Hour I First Believed mean to you? Have you had a moment of belief or witnessed it in another’s life?
In the afterword, Wally Lamb writes, “I placed my fictional protagonist inside a confounding nonfictional maze and challenged him to locate, at its center, the monsters he would need to confront and the means by which he might save himself and others. Along the way to discovering Caelum Quirk’s story, I, too, wandered down corridors baffling and unfamiliar.” Did reading the novel take you to unexpected places or raise unfamiliar feelings? Explain.
Caelum’s aunt, Lolly, lived by the philosophy of the sign that hung behind her desk at the prison: “A woman who surrenders her freedom need not surrender her dignity.” What did that mean to Lolly? What does that mean to you? Did Maureen find freedom in her imprisonment?
The novel recalls the debate of nature versus nurture. How much are we the sum of our families? How much can we change?
Fate and free will also play a role throughout the novel. How are the two connected? How are fate and free will related to nature and nurture?
In his community college class, Caelum asks his students to relate the Greek myths to their own lives. In reading their responses to his question, which, if any resonate with your own life?
Throughout the novel, Wally Lamb interweaves numerous calamities that have befallen our country, from school violence to Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq War, that have touched all of us to some degree. Can you find hope in any of these dramas? If so, what?
We live in a society that believes more in punishment and retribution than in rehabilitation when it comes to the incarcerated—a far different view than that held by Caelum’s aunt, Lolly, a correctional officer at a successful women’s prison before she was forced into retirement. Do you believe in rehabilitation? Do you think kindness is important even when it comes to criminals? Why or why not?
Wally Lamb has worked within the prison system, using his gifts to reach out and help inmates. Have your views of crime, prison, and criminals changed in any way from your reading of the novel?
One critic called Wally Lamb a “modern-day Dostoyevsky,” whose characters struggle not only with their respective pasts, but with a “mocking, sadistic God” in whom they don’t believe but to whom they turn, nevertheless, in times of trouble (New York Times). Do you think this describes The Hour I First Believed?
If you’ve read Wally Lamb’s previous novels, compare and contrast them with The Hour I First Believed.
If you’ve read the autobiographical essays written by the women in Wally Lamb’s York Prison workshop (Couldn’t Keep It To Myself, I’ll Fly Away), would you say that Lamb’s work with these students informed the plot of The Hour I First Believed? If so, in what ways?
The Hour I First Believed interfaces fictional characters with actual people who are alive today and people from the historical past. Did you enjoy this technique or not? Is it fair or unfair to blend fiction and nonfiction? Was it fair of Lamb to draw on the actual Columbine tragedy, or should he have created a fictional school shooting incident?