I picked up Hate List sometime Saturday afternoon, not long after I had finished Shutter Island. I finished it before lunch on Sunday, not because it was an easy read, but because I found it difficult to put down. Hate List tells the story of Valerie Leftman, a high school student whose boyfriend, Nick, goes on a shooting rampage at school one fine spring morning at the end of their junior year. For her part, Valerie tries to stop Nick and winds up being shot in the leg by him just before he turns the gun on himself.
She might have been considered a hero, but during the course of the investigation just following the shooting, the police uncover a red spiral notebook that contains a list of everything and everybody Nick and Valerie hate, including the names of the victims shot that May morning at school. The list is released to the press, and speculation circulates about Valerie’s part in the shooting. The book deals mainly with the aftermath, as Valerie recovers from her physical and psychic wounds and faces the challenge of returning to the school for her senior year.
While I was reading this book, I remembered that when I was young (younger than Valerie, even), the big thing was slam books. Slam books were notebooks that were passed around from person to person (let’s be honest: mostly from girl to girl). Each page had a person’s name at the top, and on that page you were supposed to write what you thought of that person. Of course it was all supposed to be anonymous, and of course it wasn’t anonymous at all. What’s significant to me about those books is how it showed us all–perhaps for the first time–the power words had over us, what they made us believe about ourselves, or made others believe about us.
So much of what happens in Hate List happens because of words; not just the words that make up the hate list itself, but the words that spawned the hate list in the first place. Valerie and her friends endure constant bullying and name-calling at school, and for Valerie and Nick, the hate list is a way to deal with their feelings of frustration and rejection. It also helps them to deal with less-than-stellar family lives at home, and with all the anger and unhappiness in the world.
Brown offers us Valerie’s first-person account both of the day of the shooting and of her long recovery. She handles Valerie’s feelings with such care, shows us every bit of her confusion, her anger, and her regret. She shows us how much Valerie misses Nick, how little she trusts herself to form new bonds with people, how unaware she can be of how the tragedy has affected people other than Nick’s direct victims. Valerie can be selfish and petulant one minute, generous and hopeful the next. She is a flawed human being, but one who keeps on going, much like the other people in the book.
Brown also takes aim at the media. Each chapter opens with a short news article about the shooting or one of its victims. Over the summer, while she’s recovering, Valerie sees even more news shows and articles about how the tragedy has brought people together, but when she returns to school, she finds things completely different than the media has portrayed them: people are fighting and placing blame; kids still have nightmares; metal detectors and special doors are being installed in the school, instilling mistrust and fear. Valerie’s therapist has told her to see the way things really are–to stop and look and let the world as it really is show itself to her. When Valerie sees the truth about her classmates, how they are basically denied the right to grieve and suffer in the name of harmony and peace and love, it makes her even more angry and confused. This made me wonder about the kids at Columbine and Virginia Tech and all the other schools where something like this has happened. We all see the news stories (backed by the swell of some emotional pop song) about memorials and healing and moving on and heroes. At some point, it all seems to be yarn-spinning so that we can tell ourselves it’s all okay and get on with life. And maybe that’s fine, but I think Brown is right to show us, there’s so much more underneath the glossy news stories, the carefully arranged musical montages accompanying pictures of victims. And not all of the victims are innocent. And not all the perpetrators are simply evil psychopathic killers.
There is no black and white in this book. In the end, Valerie is better, but she’s not all the way okay. Her family is broken, but healing, and she realizes fully that the people who were brought together by the tragedy (and some of them really are, if only for a moment, if only out of a temporal necessity) will likely go on with their lives and never see or speak to each other again. At one point in the book, Valerie tells us that as angry as she was, she liked school. She enjoyed her friends, loved her boyfriend, and most of the time, things were okay. But things were not okay for Nick, and that’s the one question left hanging: the why. Why did Nick decide to do what he did? It’s the question that will never be answered, beyond the fact that he was in real pain and couldn’t find any other way past it.
This is, I think, a must-read. I was going to say a must-read for teens or parents of teens, but really, I think everyone could take something valuable away from this book. The sad truth is, much of life is like high school. Bullying exists in the workplace. Road rage is a menace. We continue to see people as we want to see them and not as they really are, to fit them into our own narratives in a way that has nothing to do with reality. When we see people who are hurting, who hold themselves away from other people, people who let doors slam in our faces or never smile and say hello, we should at the very least consider, before we respond angrily ourselves, what kind of day they might be having, what fears they face, what disappointments they’ve experienced that day or week or month. We might not be able to help them get better, but we can certainly do our part to keep from making things worse, and hope someone will do the same for us when we need it.