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The Hate List Explores a School Shooting from a Unique Perspective

December 22, 2009

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown
published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers September 1, 2009

When I was in high school, I read Stephen King’s Rage, which took readers into the mind of a boy who went over the edge and shot some of his classmates. I found it a horrible yet fascinating premise — safely in the realm of fiction.* Since then, this unthinkable act has become a reality at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and at least 50 other schools in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. It’s not surprising that novels about school shootings are emerging, as we collectively try to make sense of this.

Jennifer Brown’s The Hate List takes on the courageous task of peeking into the mind of a school shooter and especially of delving into the experiences of survivors. The protagonist, Valerie Leftman, had never fit in at her high school. However she had a small group of friends, and through them, she found her first love. Her boyfriend, Nick, shared her frustration with the cliques and bullying at school. Together, they filled a notebook with “the hate list.” It was a list of what they hated, including bullies in their school, classmates they associated with the crowd that ostracized them, things like “Algebra” (you can’t add letters to numbers) and pretentious newscasters.

This gave Valerie and Nick a safe way to vent their anger and express their rather dark, edgy sense of humor. However, Valerie began to see clues that Nick’s mind was darker and more troubled than she had suspected. Then the unthinkable happened, and Nick brought a gun to school. While Valerie struggled to stop him, he opened fire, targeting people on their hate list.

After the shooting, in which Valerie herself was injured, she was suspected as an accomplice. Although charges were dropped, she is still under the shadow of guilt, even in the eyes of her own parents. Now, after spending the summer as a recluse, Valerie has to find the courage to return to school and face her grieving fellow students. Will they be able to forgive her? Will she be able to forgive herself?

The story alternates fluidly between the present, the time when she and Nick were together, and the actual day of the shooting. In the present, Valerie returns to the quotidian of high school life, struggling to cope with classmates’ anger and her alienation from her former friends. She is also dealing with her parents’ disappointment and distrust and the continuing disintegration of their marriage.

Jennifer Brown did a beautiful job of taking us inside Valerie’s mind, and this, for me, was what made the book so difficult to put down. It played on my emotions, provoking anger, sadness, and hope, and I found myself wholeheartedly rooting for Valerie.

The author also created a cast of secondary characters, with mixed results. For example, I really liked Mr. Hieler, her therapist, and found him believable. However Valerie’s eccentric art teacher seemed wafer-thin, which disappointed me, because I thought she had the potential to be a strong, interesting character. I never really got a sense of who Valerie’s classmates were, and I would have liked to have known them better. However, I got to know Nick, the killer, as a multi-dimensional person. I never felt I really understood what prompted him to commit murder and suicide, but I think that is part of the story. No one — even Valerie, who loved him — could get inside his mind. He committed acts which simply defy explanation.

Despite some flaws, this was an unforgettable book for me, one that was thought provoking and wedged itself into my heart. The author deftly explored the themes of grief, forgiveness, and coming of age, and she showed Valerie grow, deepen in her capacity for empathy and acceptance, and gain freedom from the past. Jennifer Brown is definitely an author to watch!

I have a question for readers who work in middle or high schools or, better yet, are students themselves. Do you think the rigid cliques and bullying that are portrayed in The Hate List and, much more dramatically, in Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes are realistic? Or is students’ mistreatment of each other more subtle? This question has been tugging at my mind since I read Nineteen Minutes (which I didn’t like nearly as well as The Hate List, by the way). It has been a long time since I was a student, and my children are homeschooled, so I really don’t know. Blatant bullying and stereotypical cliques in schools have become a standard topic — is this how things typically are in schools today?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

*I read that since school shootings have become a reality, Stephen King has pulled this book out of print.

Thanks to the author and to Reggie at The Undercover Book Lover (Not Really) for this book, which I won in a random drawing.

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