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Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: 'Hate List'

By Jennifer Brown
YA Fiction
Paperback edition October 2010
Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-0-316-04145-4

Valerie Leftman is trying to regain some semblance of normal life. But she's got some things holding her back. Her leg still hurts after she was hurt five months ago. She lost her boyfriend. Her friends aren't happy with her any more. Pretty much everyone hates her. Not even her parents are on her side. She used to have a hate list of people who teased her or her boyfriend, and they found out about it.

They found out about it when her boyfriend, Nick, opened fire inside their high school commons in a Columbine-style massacre before killing himself. Six people, including a popular teacher, died before Nick shot Valerie, wounding her in the leg, and killed himself. Now that the cops have cleared her, her parents and shrink are ready to send her back to the same school. And if her legs would do it, Valerie would gladly run in the opposite direction of that school and just keep going.

In alternating timeline sections, Brown's first novel goes deeply into Valerie's fear, guilt and hurt as she tries to heal. The inner wounds are, of course, hardest to deal with. She and Nick had some friends but were bullied by the popular kids. The morning of the shooting, one grabbed her MP3 player while she was listening to music on the bus and broke her player. Valerie has had enough. Nick reassures her and she feels much better. He heads toward Christy, the girl. Maybe he'll tell her off, Valerie thinks. Valerie is as shocked as anyone when Nick whips out a gun and shoots Christy. The horror of what is happening doesn't even register with her at first. She follows Nick until he shoots her. To some, Valerie looks like a hero for trying to stop him. To many others, she is just as guilty as he was. To none of them, the good Nick who loved music and spent many quiet hours with Valerie is mourned.

Even her parents are sources of more hurt. Her mother doesn't know when Valerie will go off the deep end again. Her father, who is rarely around, is disgusted with her. Her little brother appears to be supporting her but he's got hurts of his own as well.

Whether talking through how to deal with being hurt or how rare it is for bullies to recognize themselves and resolve to do better, whether it's debating how inept the social structure is in dealing with alienated kids who just want to be left alone or why parents are not perfect, HATE LIST is filled with moving scenarios. Even whether any healing that takes place feel authentic is a topic worth talking over.

And that's perhaps the best thing there is to HATE LIST. This is a book that does not force discussions, but rather encourages them. Talking -- and listening -- to each other has always been important. Bullying, alienation, mental illness, an atmosphere of hateful spite being accepted as normal all contribute to the kind of society where a disturbed young man puts a bullet through a congresswoman's brain and kills six people, and the kind of society where a 13-year-old girl is shot while sitting in a living room and the next night five houses are hit in drive-bys. All contribute to the kind of society where people puff up with pride while using firearm metaphors but deny what those words mean. All contribute to the kind of society where putting each other down on both scripted and "reality" television is lauded. All contribute to the kind of society where it's not quite clear whether words are meant to have meaning and are meant to be communicated back and forth, or whether words exist only to be thrown at others.

HATE LIST is a novel, but the events and feelings in it are real. It more than accomplishes what good fiction can do, which is to bring to life aspects of the human condition, allow the reader to explore being in someone else's shoes and provide a chance, without being preached at, to think and talk through what these events and feelings might mean in one's own life.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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