I tried for ages to think of a better title for this post than just the title of the book. Sometimes they come to me, and sometimes they don’t. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about this one though because Jennifer Brown’s Hate List hit really close to home. I knew it would, of course, and it’s spent months in my to-read pile waiting for me to be ready to read it.
Hate List recounts the story of Valerie Leftman’s first year after the school shooting that left her life in tatters. Whether due to denial or misunderstanding, Valerie never realized how seriously her boyfriend Nick was when he talked about how much he hated school, his peers, and his life. Then, at the end of their junior year of high school, Nick shows up at school with a gun and kills six people, injuring many more (Valerie herself included) before killing himself.
Only later does Valerie realize that the targets came from a list of students and teachers she and Nick had been compiling for years. For Valerie, the list was a way to release her frustrations about being bullied, about the everyday injustices of life, and about her own feelings, but for Nick, at least in the end, the Hate List contained nearly 450 names, and every one was a target.
What I loved about this book was that it captured so perfectly the extreme dissonances I’ve felt myself when I think about my own experiences. Nobody is sure how to feel about Nick, about Valerie, or about themselves. There are arguments about whether Valerie is a hero for stopping Nick or an accomplice to the murders. Valerie herself must grapple with the confusion as to whether Nick was a murderer or her boyfriend, a person she knew to be capable of love and whom she loved dearly. The immediate push to categorize the perpetrator of violence as a monster is instinctual, and I’m more and more certain every time I see it happen that this othering is something we do mostly because it’s the only way to make it make enough sense for us to keep moving through our lives. I understand it, but I wish we didn’t have to do it. The book also brings forward Nick’s parents as mourners, which I thought was an excellent touch, one that’s all too often forgotten.
One of my favorite parts, though, comes early in the book when Valerie says:
It was just another thing that Nick had stolen from me, from all of us, that day. He didn’t just steal our innocence and sense of well-being. He had somehow managed to rob us of our memories, as well.
Of course, I can’t speak for every person who has ever lived through an event like this. I can’t even begin to do that. But to me, this passage rang as one of the truest things I’ve found in fictional or factual accounts of the aftermaths. This complete transformation of everything I knew was the hardest for me to deal with, the fact that my home was the scene of this awful thing.
I had a few quibbles, as I usually do with books, and in this case it was mostly the stereotyping of the characters as bullied loners and outcasts, the “goth” or “punk” kids who are the threat, when that’s not necessarily true and is a stereotype that sometimes leads to some really misguided efforts. The ending was a little cheesy and wrapped up much more nicely than reality ever does. But apart from that, most of it had a ring of authenticity that made it both incredibly (unbelievably painfully devastatingly) difficult to read while simultaneously somewhat therapeutic because I’d found a voice that was engaged in conflicts I know well.
Hate List / Jennifer Brown. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1 September, 2009. U.S. $16.99 (hardcover)
Cover image from Amazon. Post image is Mourning Dove from sierraromeo on flickr.