The Hour I First Believed is a great, big, philosophical saga of a novel, told by one Caelum Quirk, a man who hasn’t so much as lost his way as never found it in the first place. As the story opens, he’s living in Littleton, CO with his third wife, Maureen, and they both work at Columbine HS. The first third of the book leads up to the Columbine massacre, which changes Caelum’s life forever because of his wife’s close brush with death. Maureen develops post traumatic stress disorder, from which she struggles unsuccessfully to recover. After Columbine, the couple returns to Caelum’s home town, to the house he grew up in. During the next several years, Caelum learns, through adversity, some truths about life and God. The Quirks are decent people, but like everyone, they’ve had their problems. Using a technique that flashes between past a present, the reader is shown how Caelum arrived at his state of limbo. The central metaphor here is Hartford’s Park River, forced underground about a century ago. One of Caelum’s friends mentions how family history is like a spring that flows along unnoticed, only to bubble up unexpectedly from time to time.
Having lived in CT for most of my life, it was enjoyable to recognize the many references to places, people, and attitudes that are prevalent in this state. Caelum’s is a compelling tale, but Lamb has packed in what seems like dozens of other stories, in the process visiting such celebrities as Mark Twain and Nicola Tesla, such disasters as the Civil War and Hurricane Katrina, and such social problems as the treatment of incarcerated prisoners and the subjugation of women. The biography of Caelum’s pioneering great grandmother could easily be told in a novel of its own. Pushing 800 pages, this is a novel that requires a patient and motivated reader to reach the “hour” Caelum “first believed”, because that isn’t revealed until the very last chapter. This is a valuable book, packed with truths about the joys and struggles of life, but be prepared for many detours and excursions along the way.