Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
The novel starts out by describing a normal day in the life of multiple characters living in Sterling, Massachusetts- Alex Cormier (a judge), her daughter (Josie), Patrick Ducharme (a detective), Lacy Houghton (a midwife), her son (Peter Houghton), and a random student at Sterling High (Zoe Patterson). Within the middle of the first chapter, the author thrusts the reader into the event of the shooting and leads the reader through what is happening through the eyes of Patrick Ducharme. As the chaos unfolds and everyone is running out of the school, Patrick pushes his way through multilpe injured and dead bodies and screaming students into a locker room where he spots the shooter, Peter Houghton, on the ground and ready to kill himself. Patrick manages to apprehend Peter and the police arrest him. Patrick bends down to observe the only two other bodies in the locker room. One of the bodies is a popular hockey jock, Matt Royston, and the other body is Matt’s girlfriend, Josie Cormier. He notices that one of the bodies move. Josie Cormier, who passed out and can’t remember any of the events that happened in the locker room, is carried out of the school by Patrick.
The next chapter describes back-story of Lacy Houghton, a kind and caring midwife, and her family (her husband Lewis, her toddler Joey, and her newborn baby Peter). She meets and befriends then-public defender, Alex Cormier, through helping Alex with carrying her unwanted baby. Alex was impregnated and tossed aside by her older married professor, Logan Rourke. At first, Alex doesn’t want anything to do with her baby, but after great consideration and consultation from Lacy, she decides to keep her baby and the chapter ends with her giving birth to her daughter, Josie.
The third chapter jumps back to the events that happen directly after the shooting. Patrick tries to stay composed as he directs the medics, EMTs, and policemen on what to do concerning the shooting. The perspective of the novel switches to Alex, who learns about the shooting at her daughter’s high school, and leaves her courtroom to go to the school. The perspective switches to John Eberhard, a victim of the shooting, who struggles to get help, but falls two stories out of a window to his death. The book switches to attorney general, Diana Leven, as she assesses the crime scene and tries to deal with the media. The novel switches to the perspective of Lacy Houghton, the mother of Peter Houghton, as she desperately tries to locate her son, and painfully finds out that her son was the shooter. The novel switches to the perspective of Patrick as he interrogates Peter Houghton. He doesn’t get any answers from Peter with his questions, but as Patrick leaves he hears Peter whisper, “They started it,” (55). Patrick goes back to the crime scene, where he finds out that one of the victims, Matt Royston, is the only victim shot twice, and that Peter Houghton had the makings of a pipe bomb in his car. Lacy Houghton goes home to search her son’s room and to try and get rid of the evidence that might hurt him, finding fertilizer and pipes in his closet. She is too late to get rid of the evidence as the police knock on her door, having a search warrant to search the premises. Jordan McAfee, an attorney, receives a call from Lewis Houghton, Peter’s father, and decides to defend Peter in the case. The chapter ends with Patrick visiting the hospital to see the girl he saved, Josie, and finds out that Alex (the judge) is her mother.
The next chapter describes the relationship between Josie and Peter when they were children. It is immediately addressed that on the first day of kindergarten, Peter gets bullied by having his lunch and lunch box thrown out of the bus by a group of older students. Luckily, Josie, his then-best friend, offers him consolation. He gets scorned by his mother for “losing” his lunch box, and then responds with “I’m not Joey,” when compared by his parents to his older, All-American brother. Alex picks her daughter up after finding out that she beat up another kid for bullying Peter. Alex reprimands her daughter for being violent, but applauds her for standing up for her friend. Lacy talks to Peter’s teacher after finding out that he is being bullied and discovers that his teacher isn’t really handling the problem effectively. The teacher encourages Peter to stand up and retaliate for himself and encourages Lacy to teach her son to do the same. Lacy, though she doesn’t want to, tells Peter that if he doesn’t stand up for himself, then he can’t play with Josie anymore. Alex, in the meantime, works to become a judge and goes through an application process. After being chosen to be the county judge, Alex finds it hard to adjust to being a judge in and out of the courtroom, always having to act superior and socially acceptable. The chapter ends with Lewis Houghton, Peter’s father, teaching Peter about guns and how to handle them.
The next chapter is about the day after the shooting. Peter is in jail. Jordan McAfee meets his client in the jail cell, only to find that Peter is unresponsive and only asks “How many did I get?” Lacy and Lewis try to figure out what has happened in their lives and are interrogated by the police. Josie gets released from the hospital and finds out that her boyfriend, Matt, is dead and about the other victims of the shootings. Alex tries to bond with her daughter, but it is revealed that their relationship is strenuous. Patrick visits testing labs and looks over the evidence gathered about Peter and the shooting. He finds out that Peter had four guns, two shotguns that weren’t used, and two pistols (one of them was only shot once, the other one was used for the rest of the shootings). He also finds a Sterling Middle School yearbook with multiple faces circled in black marker. Only one face is crossed out with the words, “Let live,” underneath it-Josie Cormier.
The arraignment about the Peter Houghton case happens, and Peter and Jordan plead not-guilty to all of the charges. Josie attempts suicide by almost swallowing multiple sleeping pills, but doesn’t go through with it. Matt Royston’s funeral is held and Josie breaks down in the front of the altar when she is asked to speak, repeating “I’m sorry,” to the congregation. Peter deals with being held in a cell with maximum security. Patrick goes to the Cormiers’ house to interrogate Josie about how she knew Peter. She responds that Peter stood out in school that Matt and other people bullied him, and that she and him weren’t friends. Lacy visits Peter in jail and finds that he is changed and not the son she knows, but she isn’t going to let go of him.
Patrick watches a video of what Peter did in the cafeteria during the shooting: blinding shooting into the cafeteria, walking past dead bodies, taking the time to eat a bowl of cereal, and then standing back up to walk out of the cafeteria and going on to shooting more people. Patrick also finds out that during the shooting, Peter hacked into the school program and had every computer say, “Ready or not, here I come,” on the screen. Jordan spends more time with Peter, learning that Peter feels no remorse for what he has done and considers himself the victim.
The next chapter goes back into the past where Josie and Peter were still friends. Josie saves Peter yet again after being socially harassed. Josie and Peter watch the events of 9/11 on TV, and their mothers pick them up from school. A few days later, Peter is harassed again by the more popular kids on his soccer team, especially Matt Royston, and is called homosexual. He becomes friends with one of the other non-popular kids, Deek Markowitz, through them being bench-warmers on the school’s soccer team. Peter’s mom publicly humiliates Peter by asking the coach to put Peter in the next game, causing the other kids to make fun of him, but Derek consoles him. Josie becomes friends with one of the popular girls, Courtney Ignacio, through a school assignment. Joey, Peter’s then-alive older brother, is shown to be smarter, more popular, and more athletically skilled than Peter. Peter is compared to Joey and Joey takes part in bullying his younger brother. Peter, wanting to feel accepted, publicly humiliates a girl in his class, Dolores Keating. He sees that she has her first period, and begins to taunt her, being followed by the other students, and is temporarily accepted as being one of them. When Dolores comes back to school, everyone in her class plans to drop a tampon one by one on her desk to taunt her even further. All of the popular kids (Drew, Matt, Courtney) drop a tampon onto her desk, but when it gets to Peter’s turn, he refuses to bully her, tries to defend her, and is harassed by the other students. Josie, still having a tampon in her hand, joins the popular kids by “accidentally” dropping the tampon in her hand onto Dolores’ desk. When Peter confronts Josie about her changing personality, she chooses to drop Peter from her life and walks away.
The novel jumps to the present, where it has been a week since the shooting. Josie and Lacy are emotionally unstable, both of them losing a loved one. Other citizens of Sterling harass Jordan McAfee for defending Peter. Alex tries to bond with Josie, even though most of her attempts are futile and strained. Jordan McAfee’s wife, Selena, who is his detective, interrogates Lacy Houghton. It is revealed that she and her husband used to compare Peter to Joey and that Joey died in a car accident a year ago. It is also revealed that Lacy allowed her sons to have privacy because she didn’t like searching through their things and finding things she didn’t want to see. She found drugs, a spoon, and a needle in Joey’s room after he died.
Josie has to go back to school, which has relocated to a temporary middle school. She finds it hard to adjust back to what was “normal” and to be with her old friends without being reminded of her dead friends. Jordan talks to Peter again, and finds out that Peter hated his older brother because Joey never stood up for him, Joey participated in the bullying against Peter, Peter was always being compared to Joey, and that Joey had told everyone that Peter was adopted to avoid being accused of being related to each other. Jordan, with the help of his wife, decide to try and apply the “battered woman syndrome” to Peter, saying that he was mentally unstable the day he had shot everyone because of all of the bullying he endured.
The novel goes back to a year before the shooting happened. Peter and Josie take a job at the same copying store. They become close to each other again, but Josie always seems to remain slightly distant because of her social status. Peter shows a graph of “Popularity” for his math class, and unknowingly humiliates Josie. Though publicly embarrassed, Matt Royston stands up for her and they become a couple, saving her from social turmoil. Peter is ignored by Josie, which leads him to set the garbage bin outside on fire to see if Josie would save him. Peter is fired from his job, and asks Josie to help him get his job back. Matt catches Peter talking to Josie and beats him up. Josie prevents Matt from beating Peter up badly, but when she tries to get Matt to stop picking on people, he gets angry and tells her to choose between him and the losers
Peter creates a videogame about hunting people. He uses his yearbook and circles the faces of people he wants to base the “prey” characters off of in his videogame. Josie searches to meet her father, only to find out that he doesn’t want her in his life and bribes her with money to go away. In her grief and wanting to be loved, she lets Matt coax her into having sex with him. She and Matt go to a party, and Matt gets angry when she embarrasses him in front of his friends. As they are about to leave, he roughly grabs her and tells her to never make him look like an idiot again, and then tells her he loves her. Peter, having a trouble identifying what his sexuality is, goes to a gay pow-wow party at a club. He gets sexually advanced upon by an older gay man, but is saved by his closeted gay teacher, Mr. McCabe (also a victim in the shooting). Mr. McCabe tells Peter that if he ever needs to talk to anyone, he would be there for him.
Peter gets a job at the library at school. One day, when he is transporting books in the elevator, Josie, having broken her foot, takes the elevator with him. The elevator breaks, and they are forced to spend time together for a few hours. They bond again, talking about why Josie chooses to act the way she does. Peter finds out that Josie broke her foot by Matt pushing her when they were having a fight. Through a dare, Josie and Peter kiss. Through this, Peter understands that he isn’t gay; he just never found the right girl (Josie). The elevator doors open and Matt carries Josie away. Peter goes home and finds out Joey dies.
The next chapter is about Peter’s trial. Peter is convicted of 10 first-degree murders, and eighteen attempted-murders. Judge Cormier decides to take the case, even though she has some tie to it through her daughter. Patrick and Alex get closer through the case. Derek, Peter’s friend, tells the detectives that Josie and Peter used to be best friends. Lacy finds out that her husband has been visiting the graveyard every time he was supposed to visit his son in jail. They are at different ends about Peter; Lacy wants to love and try to hold onto Peter while Lewis doesn’t blame any of the parents who hate Peter, and wants to let go of him. Jordan talks to Peter about why he decided to shoot all of the people, and Peter said that they were all in the way of shooting the one person he wanted to kill the most- himself. Jordan consults with a famous psychologist, Mr. King, about whether or not the can apply “battered woman syndrome” to Peter. King says that a lot of the symptoms Peter had followed the “battered woman syndrome”. Patrick and Alex happen to see each other at a Chinese restaurant and get closer. Alex decides, with Patrick’s help, to withdraw herself from being the judge of the case. Jordan McCafee, not wanting Alex to be a part of the case, puts Josie on the witness list, not knowing that she was planning to withdraw herself from the case. As Alex and Josie bond, Alex and Patrick become romantically involved as well.
The novel goes back to the month before the shooting. Josie and Matt have sex without a condom. Peter asks his mother for help on how to tell someone (Josie) that he loves her. Lacy tells him to just outright tell the person he loves. Peter writes Josie an e-mail pouring out his feelings for her. He sends it just as Courtney Ignacio opens up Josie’s e-mail. Courtney forwards the e-mail to everyone in the school, but Josie doesn’t know. Josie finds out that her period is late. Josie is forced to realize that her “friends” are only her friends if she ridicules other people, not other people ridiculing her. Courtney tells Peter that Josie is over Matt and wants to be with Peter. Peter goes up to the popular table, and Josie’s “friends” make fun of Peter and his letter. Matt pulls Peter’s pants and underwear down in front of the whole cafeteria. Josie feels horrible, but allows everything around her to happen. The next day, Josie pretends to be sick and searches up ways to terminate pregnancies, and gets a positive pregnancy test. Peter finds guns in his neighbor’s (who was en ex-cop) house. Josie tells Matt she’s pregnant, and then is relieved when she miscarries by following one of the abortion methods she read on the Internet. She tells Matt she miscarries, and he is overjoyed.
The next chapter jumps back to the present. Lacy tries to hold onto Peter. Josie visits the graveyard and has a “conversation” with Matt’s grave. Patrick was sent by Josie’s mother to watch her, and he consoles her and tells her that she isn’t alone because she has her mom with her. Peter’s trial starts. A slideshow of all of the bodies found in the school are shown, and Peter feels remorseful. Josie sees Peter’s mother at the trial, but isn’t mean to her and instead tells Lacy that Peter is her friend. Dr. King, the psychologist, tells the jury that Peter had “battered wife syndrome” and post-traumatic stress disorder, which led him to shoot people without realizing what he was doing. Peter asks to give a testimony in the court, and Jordan reluctantly allows it. Jordan rehearses Peter’s responses, but when Peter gets up to the courtroom, he makes a mistake and points himself out as the bad guy. As Jordan McAfee struggles to recoil and recover the case, he decides to try to interrogate Josie one more time about the case. During the interrogation, Josie sees Selena, Jordan’s wife, drop their son’s baby bag, which makes Josie remember all of the events that happen in the locker room when Matt dies. She tells Jordan that Matt tried to shoot Peter first, and then Peter shot Matt.
The events of the shooting day are revealed. Peter wakes up, drops his glasses onto the keyboard of his computer, and a screen pops up of the message that was spammed out to everyone in the school. He breaks apart at that point. He goes to school and detonates a bomb in Matt Royston’s car in the parking lot, distracting students as we walks into the school with his guns. He passed Zoe Patterson and shot her. He shot Alyssa Carr in the hallway and went into the cafeteria and shot Angela Phlug, Maddie Shaw, Courtney Ignacio, Haley Weaver, Brady Pryce, Natalie Zlenko, Emma Alexis, Jada Knight, and Richard Hicks. He sits down and eats a bowl of Rice Krispies. After finishing his bowl of cereal, he gets back up and leaves the cafeteria, shooting Jared Weiner, Whit Obermeyer, Grace Murtaugh, and Lucia Ritolli. He goes into the boys’ bathroom and shoots Steven Babourias, Min Horuka, and Topher McPhee. He goes into the girls’ bathroom and shoots Kaitlyn Harvey. He goes upstairs and shoots Ed McCabe, John Eberhard, and Trey MacKenzie. When he gets in the gym he shoots Austin Prokiov, Coach Dusty Spears, Noah James, Justin Friedman, and Drew Girard. Finally, Peter goes into the locker room.
When Josie goes up to testify, she is asked to “tell the truth” and everything will be fine. The next part of the chapter relives the events that happened in the locker room. Matt shoved Josie roughly behind a wooden bench. Peter opens the locker room doors, and Josie screams, causing Peter to drop his bag full of the guns. One of the guns slides over to Josie’s foot, and she picks it up. Peter tells Josie to not do anything and let him shoot Matt. Matt tells Josie to “Fucking shoot [Peter]…Are you fucking stupid?” and Peter tells Matt to not talk to Josie like that. Matt tells Josie again to shoot, and she shoots Matt in the stomach. Sobbing, she turns to Peter, and asks him to help her. Peter shoots Matt in the head, and whispers, “’Don’t tell,’: I won’t share your secrets, if you don’t share mine.”
The courtroom erupts in chaos and Patrick arrives a few minutes later with the evidence that show that Matt couldn’t have fired at Peter; Josie was telling the truth about her firing the gun at Matt. When Jordan confronts Peter about Josie’s statement, he says that, “You don’t break a promise to a friend.” Peter is convicted of eight first-degree murders and two second-degree murders.
After the trial, Lacy gets rid of Peter’s stuff. A month after the trial, Peter commits suicide by stuffing a sock down his throat. Sometime after the trial, Alex and Patrick are together and expecting their first child. They walk through the halls of the new Sterling High, a school with better security and memorials for the dead or injured students. Peter is dead and Josie was charged as an accessory to second-degree murder and accepted a plea for manslaughter with five years served. The novel ends with Patrick and Alex walking through the corridors of the hallways.
2. Point of View/Perspective
The point of view of the novel is in third person, following multiple people that are involved and affected by the shootings. Lacy Houghton, Patrick Ducharme, Peter Houghton, Lewis Houghton, Alex Cormier, Courtney Ignacio, Josie Cormier, Zoe Patterson, Jordan McAfee, and Diana Leven are the people from which the novel is told. Most of the novel is told through Alex, Patrick, Lacy, Peter, and Josie’s point of view. The third-person perspective of multiple people is affective in showing how one event can be experienced and dealt with through multiple people. It gives the novel a certain amount of depth, because you are able to experience from a bunch of people’s perspectives instead of just following one character that might not relate to you that well. It feels more real having many people react to one event, because usually when a story is told, it is told through one person’s perspective and the characters that affect the main character never have a chance to say how they feel about the situation. An example of the multiple perspectives in the novel is near the beginning, when Alex Cormier and Lacy Houghton are interacting with each other and the things they do after they’ve interacted. Lacy meets Alex, and decides to “keep an eye on her” because she is a new mother who doesn’t want her baby. After Alex meets Lacy, she is at first reluctant to get to know her because Lacy was just so positive.
It is hard to pin-point the protagonist of the novel because there are so many conflicts within the novel and so many complex characters introduced in the plot. The characters with the most conflicts and the most interaction with the other characters would be Josie Cormier and Peter Houghton. They were best friends when they were little through their mothers. When they were little they even said that they were going to get married and often played house with each other during kindergarten break time. Then, as they grew up, they drifted away when Josie decided to become popular. They become close again through work, and then Peter’s inability to be “normal” causes Josie to shy away from him. They become close again through spending time together in a locked elevator, but Josie slips back into her mask of popularity and doesn’t pay attention to Peter. When Peter confesses his love to Josie, she feels bad, but is too caught up with her image to show that she cares about Peter. Peter writes “Let live” underneath Josie’s picture after changing how he feels about her. When Peter is convicted, Peter asks how Josie is. Josie asks how Peter looks during the trial. The truth comes out that Peter and Josie were in cahoots with Matt Royston’s death.
Josie struggled to fit in and pretend to be someone else. She was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Matt Royston, and got impregnated by him and then had a miscarriage. Her mother isn’t particularly close to her, and she is confused about how she feels about her mom’s lover, Patrick. Josie also has a father who doesn’t want her to be a part of his life.
Peter was bullied throughout his entire school life. His best friend Josie was ripped away from him because of social pressure. He was constantly being called homosexual and other mean names by many of his peers, including his own older brother. He had access to guns and played and listened to violent media. He was being constantly compared to his brother, Joey. He was in love with a girl he could never have, and could never quite fit in because he did things that weren’t socially acceptable. He is described by his mother as “tender, almost to the point of being raw. It took someone like Josie…to protect him” (78).
The setting takes place between sometime in the early 1990’s (when the children were born/babies) and March 6, 2008 (453). It takes place in Grafton County, Sterling, New Hampshire (5, 9). There are multiple small settings within the bigger settings- classrooms, a club, the Cormier house, a Chinese restaurant, a high school, the Houghton house, a cemetery, a jail, Sterling High School, the Courtroom, a middle school, etc. The contrast between the settings of the earlier events and the later events are that the earlier events usually happen to occur in very common places that most small towns (like Vancouver, Washington, for example) have. The events that are normal and slightly positive mostly occur in the daylight in places like the kindergarten that Josie and Peter played in and the Chinese restaurant that Alex and Patrick talked in. The events that are negative or life-changing seem to occur during the night and in places that are usually associated with negative things like when Lewis and Lacy were torn between what they wanted to do about their son in the raining cemetery, or the events that happen in the cell where Peter is held. The fact that there are so many different “normal” settings of the novel show how the events of the novel can happen anywhere, including somewhere that is “normal”. The different “normal” settings also make the novel seem more realistic, because when I imagine a local grocery store or a copying store, I know what to imagine or think about because I have been in places like that.
One of the major themes addressed in this novel is the idea of fitting in. Almost every single character in the novel experiences some conflict with fitting in. Alex Cormier, for example, has to constantly act like a judge, even when she is in private, because anyone could be watching her or judging how she acts. This is shown by the event where Josie accuses her mother of using her “Judge Voice” and switching it between the way she talks to Josie and the way she talks to the waiter (152). Peter Houghton experiences being a social outcast no matter what he does. An example of Peter trying to fit in is when he began to taunt a girl who had her period, and then later trying to stop the taunts and trying to stand up for her, causing him to be knocked down again. Josie has to sacrifice who she is and has to be a part of an abusive relationship in order to be accepted as someone else (someone popular). She is constantly struggling to figure out if she is truly happy being accepted, or if she is truly happy being herself. Peter’s older brother, Joey, has to sacrifice the relationship he has with his brother in order to be popular and maintain his social status. Zoe Patterson’s short part in the novel talks about how she was thinking about her braces and what would happen if she tried to kiss a boy with braces. She goes on to talk about how humiliating it would be if their braces got stuck together, and how she could probably temporarily join a convent because of her ugly-looking braces (19, 20). Even the math teacher, Ed McCabe, talks about fitting in. He was a closeted gay man with a gay lover. He didn’t want the students or the faculty to know about his sexual orientation because he knew what they would say about him and he was scared about what would happen.
The author addresses the issue of ‘fitting in’ in an interview located at the very back of the book:
“Q: In the acknowledgements, you write: ‘To the thousands of kids out there who are a little bit different, a little bit scared, a little bit un-popular: this one’s for you.’ What might readers, particularly young readers, take from this book and apply to their own lives?
A: If I could say one thing to the legions of teens out there who wake up every morning and wish they didn’t have to go to school, it would be this – and I’m saying it as both a mom and writer: Stay the course. You will find someone like you; you will fit in one day. And know that even the cool kids, the popular kids, worry that someone might find out their secret: that they worry about fitting in, just like you do.”
The title, “Nineteen Minutes,” is addressed within the novel. On page 5, there is a short excerpt describing what someone could do in nineteen minutes:
“In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five.
Nineteen minutes is how long it took the Tennessee Titans to sell out of tickets to the play-odds. It’s the length of a sitcom, minus the commercials. It’s the driving distance from the Vermont border to the town of Sterling, New Hampshire.
In nineteen minutes, you can order a pizza and get it delivered. You can read a story toa child or have your oil changed. You can walk a mile. You can sew a hem.
In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off of it.
In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.”
There is another excerpt in the novel addressing the title on page 363:
“’This entire spree lasted nineteen minutes in the life of Peter Houghton, but the evidence will show that its effects will last forever…the deaths of nineteen others at Sterling High School…as Peter Houghton knows…in nineteen minutes, you can bring the world to a screeching halt.’”
I think that the title, “Nineteen Minutes” is appropriate for the novel because the issue of time is constantly addressed in the novel (the chapters usually address what time it is-the past of the present-and what is happening during that time) and because the number 19 is a significant number in the novel. It took nineteen minutes for Peter Houghton to go on his shooting rampage, killing or wounding nineteen people at Sterling High School. The novel ends when Josie is nineteen.
7. Personal Recommendation
Personally, I think that this book would be a great asset to the AP Curriculum. Granted, it has some suggestive themes (drinking, unprotected sex, revenge, murder, etc.), but it deals with each conflict so beautifully and complexly that it would be great to study how the author views each conflict that is brought up in the book. There are some great points in the book about the universal themes of ‘fitting in’, masks and different personalities, the justice system, different mental diseases, the domino affect, and how a few acts of treating others negatively can cause a great outcome. Almost every single character in the book is relatable and feels real, and they are each complex and have their own personality traits and backgrounds to them. The conflicts are woven in with each other so brilliantly that all of the little things that could be over-looked in the book add up to the final conflict and connect to everything else that happens. The plot structure is pretty confusing at first, but it is easy to get immediately intrigued by the book and it hooks you i