Hate List, by Jennifer Brown, Book Review

Hate-ListI met Jennifer Brown at a conference a few weeks ago. She was the sweetest girl. She chatted with me all through lunch, and I so wanted to like her book. Unfortunately, I found little I admire in Hate List.

Valerie Leftman survives a school shooting with only a bullet wound in her leg. But emotional scars, she finds, take much longer to heal. Especially when you’re the girlfriend of the shooter. And especially when the list of victim’s names originated in your head and landed in your notebook.

Valerie’s journey to recovery is believable and compelling. Ms. Brown explores every angle: the condemnation of Valerie’s parents, the abandonment of her friends, the acceptance of others, strained relationships at school when Valerie returns for her senior year, the principal’s desire to make everything go away, the bullying that motivated the attack, and Valerie’s own self-reproach though she didn’t pull the trigger. She didn’t even know Nick was planning such a catastrophe, but she harbors guilt over missing the signs and failing to stop it.

My favorite part of the book is the way Ms. Brown turns Nick into a real person. He is certainly vilified, but she includes plenty of flashback anecdotes that explain why Valerie loved him in the first place. He’s a normal kid, with hurts and insecurities and a passion for Shakespeare of all things. His family life sucks, and tormentors at school make his life unbearable.

But Hate List follows every trend in young adult literature that I dislike. Here in America we tend to sensationalize the most shocking subject matter.  Just as the press covered the Columbine shooting for weeks and months, wallowing in the aftermath, sucking every last bit of story from the wreckage, I feel that Hate List does much the same. I know there will be multitudes who disagree with me. We must draw attention to the tragedy in the hopes of understanding the problem, they will say, to prevent it from ever happening again. Telling this story is all part of the process. I say it’s a glorification of one of the darkest sides of American culture.

In addition, the language in the book is horrible. Aren’t we trying to teach our kids NOT to talk like this? Has foul language become so commonplace that it’s now acceptable? I know, I know, I’ve been in high school hallways. It’s reality. But thousands of excellent titles have managed to succeed without sinking to such a low.

I also disagree with the values set forth in Hate List. There’s a mishmash of conflicting statements as to what is acceptable behavior and what is not, and distinctions between right and wrong are all based on Valerie’s feelings and the general acceptance of culture–very dangerous, unreliable authorities. For example, Valerie finds out her father is keeping an affair hidden from her mother. She asks him: “‘So it’s okay? This is okay?’ He probably thought, given the context of the conversation, that I meant whatever was going on between him and Britni/Brenna. But what I really meant was about the lying. He was lying about who he was, just like I had. And it was okay. But it so didn’t feel okay. And I wondered how, given everything that had happened, he couldn’t see why lying about who you are isn’t okay.” So Valerie’s all right with the affair, just not about lying. But only about lying about who you are, it seems, for on the very next page she’s lying to her mother about why she stayed after school.

Hate List also drags us through the worst of home situations and offers divorce as the best alternative. It scoffs at church as “embarrassing.” Valerie’s brother only goes on the church retreat with his friend to “get to third base” with a girl. And Valerie’s parents are complete idiots, spinelessly unable to enforce any rules, which, I’ll submit, is probably a major factor when kids mess up to this extent. But even more basic than that, when parents display selfish and immoral behavior, when they set the example and see the damage it inflicts yet make poor choices anyway, how can they expect better from their kids? These problems are rampant in American culture, and a book such as this one only exacerbates the problems by treating them as normal and okay.

In conclusion, Ms. Brown offers us a deep, emotional journey into the heart of American violence. Yet I find it very lacking in solutions.

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