The Hour I First Believed is described on its jacket as an exploration of faith, and as such I didn’t think it would be very interesting to me. But it is really more about a man’s struggle to face the problems of his life and his own demons. It is an extremely interesting and affecting work.
Caelum Quirk is not always a likable protagonist. He has anger issues—went after his third wife’s lover with a wrench—can be withdrawn and drink too much, says the wrong thing quite often, and earned my personal disregard at the beginning of the novel by referring to two different women as a ballbuster and a nutcracker. Lamb had to work hard to get my sympathy for his character after that, but he did accomplish that by the end of the novel. Still, whether I liked Caelum or not, I couldn’t tear myself away from his story.
Caelum is trying to salvage his marriage after the wrench incident, so he and his wife Maureen decide to move away from Three Rivers, Connecticut, the town where his family has a lot of history, and get jobs in Colorado. They are settled there and are doing okay, although still having relationship issues, when Caelum is called back to Connecticut because his beloved Aunt Lolly has had a stroke. She dies shortly after he returns, and Maureen is making arrangements to come for the funeral but decides to work one more day at the high school where Caelum teaches English and she is a nurse. Unfortunately, the high school in question is Columbine, and the school day she works is the day two students go on a rampage.
Maureen would normally be out of the area of trouble, but that day she decides to help Velvet Hoon, a troubled drop-out, fill out some papers in the library. Although she is not killed, she hides in a cupboard for hours before she is found, and subsequently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that barely allows her to function. She also struggles with an addiction to uppers.
Caelum and Maureen move back to live on Caelum’s family farm, a place for which he has mixed but mostly negative feelings. His father was a drunk of whom he was ashamed. He remembers his grandfather as judgmental and his mother as cold. Only Lolly seemed to care for him.
Troubles are not over for Caelum and Maureen, but I don’t want to reveal more about that. Caelum must also deal with his feelings about his family. His great-great grandmother was an early fighter for abolition and women’s rights, and she was instrumental in establishing the women’s prison down the road from the farm. It had a long history of treating the women with dignity and had a low rate of recidivism until its values were changed by modern tough-on-crime politics. Caelum’s great-great grandmother’s papers are in a spare room of the house. When Caelum is forced by financial circumstances to rent part of the house to a couple evacuated from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, the wife, a women’s studies graduate student, asks if she can examine them. This and other events lead Caelum to several discoveries about his family.
This novel is sprawling, even a bit messy, because it seems to want to deal with everything. It features large events such as Columbine, 9/11, and Katrina, as well as the inequity of the American justice system, PTSD, drug addiction, grief, love, trust, religion, infidelity, and other issues. It is interesting, frustrating, and ultimately worth reading.