The Entertainment Critic Book Review, By James Myers
By Jodi Picoult
Published by Atria Books, An Imprint of Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: February 5, 2008
Four Star Rating****
“Shots fired…At the high school…Sterling High….Signal 1000, the dispatcher said. Signal 1000.
In Patrick’s entire career as a detective, he’d only heard it called twice. Once was in Maine, when a deadbeat dad had taken an officer hostage. Once was again in Sterling, during a potential bank robbery that turned out to be a false alarm. Signal 1000 meant that everyone, immediately, was to get off of the radio and leave it free for dispatch. It meant what they were dealing with was not routine police business.
It meant life or death.” (Pp. 21)
Judi Picoult has yet another novel that addresses a current national social issue that is both compelling and thought-provoking: school safety in light of a record number of school shootings in 2007. The question of what causes a student to take a weapon into his school and then to open fire on his classmates is addressed in the paperback reissue of the top selling hardbound from last year, Nineteen Minutes. Jodi has an amazing talent for objectively revealing issues to us in these controversies that seldom are discussed in the news and print media. If you are the parent of a shooter, how do you feel? How does the student himself feel? What kind of an impression does he make on other people, like his own attorney? How does the community feel? How do the parents of the victims feel? Judi uses her famous stream of conscious technique to examine how each interest group involved is thinking. What are their private issues, concerns, and biases? What’s their angle? In this examination of the aftermath of a public school shooting, all sides have their say, and Picoult makes sure that the participants discuss and privately raise all of the angles to every issue.
In a sleepy bedroom community, Sterling, NH, the school misfit, Peter Houghton walks into his high school with a literal barrage of weapons, systematically eliminating his classmates, including several that have tormented him over a period of years. After the killing ends in 19 short minutes, 10 people are dead and Josie Cormier, the best eye witness to the incidents claims she cannot remember what happened. Picoult throws us a curve when her mother ends up as the criminal court judge who presides over the case. One further twist is that Matt, Josie’s boyfriend is one of the victims. Judge Cormier does not recuse herself from the case, creating all sorts of knotty legal and personal issues. Picoult makes good use of another one of her favorite techniques, the flashback to show how Peter was bullied, teased and beaten by his classmates and his athletic brother since kindergarten. This caused Peter to recede into the world of video games, a unique world of killing and violence all of its own. (Although Picoult touches on this only tangentially, the issue of an ineffective current rating system for videogames is an undercurrent in this book). Peter is also a closet computer programmer. When they were younger, Peter and Jodi were best friends. But as she grew older, Jodie became one of the popular kids, and it just was not cool to be seen hanging around with Peter anymore. Peter recedes even further into a world he can control. The programming/designing aspect of video games coupled with his anger over be constantly bullied leads him to create a videogame in his mind; one where the hero marches his way through Peter’s school, killing all of his enemies.
Picoult take us along for her journey of post-traumatic stress brought on by constant bullying over a decade or more, where Peter can find no relief from his parents, the teachers or the school administrators. Emasculated, this is a teapot waiting to boil over. The other issue she explores is the love Peter’s mother has for him, despite the horrible crime, and her attempts to cope with the horrible crimes. The parents enter into a where did we go wrong zone, that is particularly insightful in this book. Jordan McAfee who defends Peter in trial doesn’t understand his client either. Picoult puts forward the post-traumatic stress theory, much like you might see in a brainwashing/crime/Patti Hearst type case in this unique set of facts. Jordan has problems: how do you defend someone who admits they performed these acts to test their computer program? Worse yet, his unpredictable and socially inappropriate client wants to testify. Not exactly a day at the beach for the lawyer and judge in this case. Particularly, when called on during the trial, Jodi drops a bomb during her testimony, when her memory magically returns. This legal thriller and social examination piece has more twists and turns than most curvy roads. Like all of Picoult’s wonderful books, this one is well written, researched and executed. Picoult’s skills as a great, modern day storyteller are on display in this book. Who is the victim and who is the villain becomes more and more murkier with every passing page. Deeply disturbing, and at paperback prices, this book is a “can’t pass up bargain” you need to get your hands on. As the publisher says, “It is provocative fiction as its best.” At its very best!