by Jennifer Brown
“I sat back and looked at it. It was ugly, dark, uncontrolled. Like a monster's face. Or maybe what I saw there was my own face. I couldn't quite tell. Was the face the image of something evil or the image of myself?
"Both," Bea muttered, as if I'd spoken my question out loud. "Of course, it's both. But it shouldn't be. Goodness, no.”
Valerie and her boyfriend Nick are bullied in school so they create a "hate list" a list of all the people who make their lives miserable. Nick is funny and sweet and loves Shakespeare....and then on the morning of May 2nd he opens fire in the school cafeteria, killing the students who are on that list. When Val realizes what is happening, she tries to stop Nick and gets shot in the leg before he turns the gun on himself. In Hate List we jump back and forth between the morning of the shooting, Val's memories of Nick and the horrible consequences of the event. Val is seen sometimes as a hero, but more often then not as an accomplice. The book chronicles the healing process (or not) of Val, of the school, of the town. Emotions are so tangled up for the kids, the parents, the school officials that Val becomes a walking symbol of what happened that day. In the face of so much pain and hate, how can Val face another year at school?
Wow. This book was gripping, beautiful and moving. So very sad and hard and hopeful. I loved how it was not just a story about a school shooting. It could turn into a voyeuristic slasher blood fest quickly. And it is not a sappy love fest where easy answers are found in platitudes. It is about how you deal with something like that, not just the victims or the victims’ families, but the “culprits” and their families and survivors in all senses of the word. How the media spins it to make the country believe everyone has healed and accepted the loss when that is not the case, and probably will not be the case for a very long time. It does not make things simple either. Nick was a nice kid, a good boyfriend, intellectual and passionate. There is no cut and dried explanation as to why he did what he did. He was teased and he got angry and he took drugs, but plenty of people do that without shooting up a school. We never uncover the mystery. We never receive a satisfactory diagnosis of a disease that we can cure in our school system or society.
I very much appreciated how Brown wrote adults. I have noticed a trend in many YA books where the authors feel they have to remove parents from the equation in order for kids to strike out on their own. The parents and authority figures either are horrible people, ignore the kids, have died, or are unable to relate to the kids. This is why I really admire John Green when he has his characters sit down and watch TV with his loving parents and actually enjoy hanging out and talking with them. While I understand the trope, I also feel like it isolates kids from adults, making them feel like adults will not be there for them, or understand their problems. In Hate List, the adults were simply people. Flawed, yes, but well-rounded people. The teachers are not just authority figures. They are struggling through their grief and loss as well, and not in a generic way, but in very specific ways. Dr. Heiler, while idealized, is a SUPPORTIVE ADULT FIGURE that she can tell things too! Incredible! He has a mysterious family that Val wonders about, a life outside of his office. Val’s mother is both frustrating and heart breaking as she wrestles with the fact that her child inadvertently caused people to die. She blames her and protects her and protects other people from her and trusts her and doesn’t trust her. I appreciated the chaos of their relationship and how it developed, moving forward and then snapping backward throughout the book. Her relationship with her dad, though, was rather sickening and destructive and difficult to read.
Val herself is massively wounded and confused. I don’t know how she got through every day, but humans are built to be resilient. She is another badass heroine, not because she fought bad guys, but simply because she faced every day. She survived through time and sheer stubbornness and forcing herself to be vulnerable when the survivalist in me would armor up. While I was not satisfied with the ending, which made me worry about Val more than feel confidant she was on the road to recovery, her journey of healing was inspiring.
One small note: this book makes me painfully aware of how casually we use language. Have a frustrating day, say “I’m going to kill someone!” Or miming putting a gun in our mouths and pulling the trigger. Some day someone might mean it, and we will not know. Or someone might have lived through a tragedy like this, and the reality of the phrase will slice their wounds open again.