Hate List by Jennifer Brown
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010, 432 pages
From a psychological and human interest perspective, I’m fascinated by extreme violence – serial killers, terrorism, school shootings. (Let me emphasize, though, that I do not condone this violence or anything of the sort.) I read a lot of web articles about these topics, have read through the Wikipedia articles for Columbine and Virginia Tech (among others) several times, and have even scrolled through fan pages for these events and their perpetrators on Tumblr (yes, these exist; they can have very graphic and disturbing content, though, so if you choose to seek them out, proceed with caution!) because the mentality of not just the murderers, but of their “fans” (and some truly are fans and sympathizers) is almost as interesting to me.
I’ve hedged, however, at fiction on these topics. I haven’t read a whole lot of it because I don’t often feel fiction can do it justice, or the author will have some ulterior motive and message (either on one side or the other), or it’ll just be too campy given the dire seriousness of these subjects. Despite this, I grabbed Hate List from one of my public library’s ebook collections and breezed through it in a few days. Hate List isn’t a perfect book, but it does have a lot of great stuff in it. Before I get into that, here’s a quick rundown of the plot –
Valerie, a high school student, is left entering school again after a long break that extended beyond just the summer months. Just before school let out for summer, her boyfriend, Nick, brought guns to school and killed and injured classmates and teachers. Stuck with feelings of guilt for a variety of reasons, and wondering what she could have done to stop it, Valerie thinks this might not have happened if it weren’t for the “hate list” she started with Nick. Now that she’s heading back to school, she’ll have to figure out who is willing to say “hello,” to her – forget about who even wants to be friends. Meanwhile, her family is falling apart and her therapist sometimes feels like the only person on her side.
Ultimately, Hate List was kind of campy. I won’t dance around that. Brown’s prose reads in such a way that suggests she doesn’t think her readers are ready for true realism. She does describe some of the violence that occurred through sections of flashbacks and newspaper articles written by a fictitious journalist, but it’s all very PG. And I don’t necessarily know that it has to be graphic and visceral to be less campy – in fact, a lot of that campiness came from the relationships and characters that, despite Brown’s apparent efforts (such as presenting characters who have personalities that conflict with the main character’s perception of those characters), are one-dimensional. The characters are, largely, what you would expect to see in a run-of-the-mill family comedy. The troubled father. The overly-emotional mother. The annoying-but-cute little brother. The angsty teen. The preps. The jocks. The popular kids. The outcasts. It’s all so predictable. In drawing her characters this way, I think Brown did something that’s actually a bit dangerous: she made an assumption about what a school shooter looks like and what the motive and the victims “causing” that motive look like.
This isn’t an academic paper, so I’m not going to bore you all (read: make the effort) to say why this is a problem. I’ll just say that I think Brown is perpetuating some pre-existing stereotypes around school shooters and school shootings that are harmful. By making the assumption that the outcast is going to take up a gun and kill the preps and jocks, not only is that trite and kind of lazy, it’s setting us up to fear people who are different. And I think we do quite enough of that as it is.
But moving on. Despite all of the stereotyping, I really appreciated Brown’s commitment to showing Nick as a full human being with more than one side. Yes, he killed and injured his classmates. But leading up to that, Valerie liked him for a reason. For the most part, he’s a likable kid. He’s a person. And rather than just designing him as a cold-blooded killer, Brown lets her readers sympathize with Valerie, which is the important thing. At the same time, the story becomes more believable because even those who are heartless, emotionless, cold murderers, history shows, blend in pretty well up until they get caught or are responsible for a major event. If you look at descriptions of famous serial killers, you’ll find many who knew them describe these people as charming, if maybe a little off. It all depends on the psychological diagnosis, and I want to stay away from making any generalizations or pretending I’m expert, so I’ll stop here – but ultimately, I felt Brown’s characterization of Nick was both important and at least semi-successful.
Hate List, at least for me, was a really quick read. I got through it in a few days, even though it’s a bit bulky in terms of page numbers. The plot is so-so and I felt there were some major things missing, like a place where a complete list of the victims are compiled (I think that would have had a much bigger impact; despite the obituaries and articles and other pieces of the novel, I never really had a good sense of how many people Nick had killed or injured – obviously one at all is horrendous, but the number of people, their class years, are important pieces to understanding subtext and a climate that isn’t stated explicitly). And, yeah, the book had a very ‘90s-teen-movie feel to it. But it wasn’t bad. It was enjoyable.
If, however, you’re looking for a really fast school-shooting read, one I read back in middle school (so, make of the distance since I’ve read it what you will) has stuck in my mind ever since: Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser. At the time I read it, I was so moved that I wrote the superintendent and asked that they make it assigned reading for all middle school students. I still feel it’s an important book, if perhaps a little dated now, and definitely worth a few hours of your and your loved ones’ time.
Meanwhile, check out other books on this topic here.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤