Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Books Reviews: Novels About School Shootings

So as my loyal reader(s) have figured out by now, I have what I am sure some would call an unhealthy fascination with school shootings – in particular Columbine. Columbine affected me deeply when I was in high school. I was the shooters age, and in some ways I related to the stories that came out of that school in the aftermath of the massacre. Now 10 years later, more and more details are known, and I continue to be fascinated. I have posted two reviews recently of the two most in depth books about Columbine – David Cullen’s Columbine and Jeff Kass’ Columbine: A True Crime Story. But I found even after reading those books, I was still fascinated, so I read a bunch of novels about school shootings. There were no shortage of titles to choose from. In the wake of Columbine, it seems that dozens of titles have popped up. Some are “Youth Fiction” some are aimed at adults, and I made no distinction. If they were about school shootings, they were a novel, and I could get a copy, I did. This is hardly a complete list. There are just too many books. The one I wish I could have read was Wally Lamb’s best selling “The Hour I First Believed”, a novel that takes place, in part, during the Columbine massacre. But I’m cheap, it’s only available in an expensive hard copy and the library has over 100 holds for it. It wasn’t going to happen. But the following books I did read. I have given each a letter grade, and I’m going to assume that you all remember from high school what they mean. Some of the books are great, others are crap. I have listed them in alphabetical order.

After by Francine Prose
As the title implies, After is not really about a school shooting at all, but about what happens after one. It does not even take place at the school where the shooting took place – but instead at one about 50 miles away. The shooters are mentioned casually, but that’s all. Instead, After is a novel about the extreme measures taken to prevent school shootings, and about how they could end up doing more harm then good. At first, the restrictions placed on the students at school seem normal, if a little extreme – no cell phones, no baseball caps, zero tolerance on violence, zero tolerance on drug use, metal detectors, guards, locker and backpack searches. Everyone seems to except them without question. But then stranger things continue to happen. Kids keep getting sent away to “wilderness retreats” for seemingly inconsequential infractions – and they don’t come back. It is even reported that one student is killed. A teacher lets one of her students break the rules in class, and the next day, she’s gone as well. They have to start watching “Great Moments in America History” on the school bus every day, but something is not quite right about these videos. The school’s new “grief counselor” starts to rule with an iron fist. After acts as a reminder that most kids are normal teenagers, who are not going to shoot up their schools, and deserve a little bit of freedom and trust. What happens in the novel is extreme, but then that is the point. Author Francine Prose takes everything to the extreme. While this is one of the books on this list in the “Young Adult” section, it is well written and scarily plausible. Quite a good book. Grade: B.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Empire Falls is not really about a school shooting, but rather uses one as an exclamation point at the end of this brilliant novel about the death of small town America. Winner of the Pulitizer Prize in 2001, this book is full of wonderful, believable characters, none more so than Miles Roby, a man who once had big dreams for himself, but now is middle aged, getting divorced and running a low rent grill in the dead end town of Empire Falls. The people who come in and out of his life there are all richly sketched. The lone character who remains somewhat of a cliché is the shooter himself, who is painted as a loner from the start, and gradually just keeps getting stranger and stranger. There is no doubt what he’s going to do. So if you are interested in a book about school shootings, then this isn’t it. If you want to read a great book, then it is. Grade: A

Endgame by Nancy Garden
Endgame, another of the books aimed at young people on this list, tells the story of school shooter from his own point of view. He has been arrested and is awaiting trial, and he tells his story to his lawyer. The book is quite good in parts – it really does get under this kid’s skin – but the problem with the book is that we do not believe he would do what he did. Yes, he was bullied and picked on (of course, almost all of these novels as you will see have been about kids who were bullied or picked on), but author Nancy Garden does a very poor job at showing us how the kid goes from being angry and depressed to be homicidal – they are not the same thing. One page, we are feeling sorry for the kid – the next he is shooting up the school. It simply doesn’t add up. Grade: C

Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser
This book has an interesting premise and structure, but it gets bogged down trying too hard to place blame, and overwhelming us with statistics that are littered throughout the novel. The story is about two boys – one a new kid in school, another whose parents get divorced – who are outsiders at “Middleton High School” (get it – it’s slightly bigger then Littleton). They get picked on mercilessly by the jocks, until they cannot take it anymore, and storm a school dance with guns and booby trap all the doors with explosives. Despite their rage – they don’t actually kill anyone. They shoot the principal, but he lives, and they shoot one jock in both kneecaps, but he also lives. One boy shoots himself; the other is beaten into a coma by the jocks once the gun is forced from him. Despite the fact that Strasser says he “has no answers”, he certainly has an agenda. Bullying and gun control seem to be his biggest complaints, but he also points out stats on TV violence, video games and movies. This is a novel for young people, so for them, perhaps it will be a good read – although it is so incredibly simplistic in the reading that it’s tough to see anyone in high school really liking it that much. I liked the structure of the novel, which was told from multiple points of view based on “interviews” with the survivors and others. Overall though, the book is merely mediocre, and doesn’t really get to the root of anything. Not having the shooters kill anyone is also a cop out. It allows Strasser to portray the shooters purely as “victims”. You surely feel sorrier for them then for anyone else in the story. Grade: C -.

Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus was one of the first novels to deal with school shootings, and for the first half of the novel he does a remarkable job. Told in four parts, by four separate narrators, the movie opens with its best chapter. Obviously based on Cassie Bernal, the girl at Columbine who reportedly said “Yes” when asked if she believed in God and then was killed (this has been proven untrue, but whatever), as a teenage girl who is pregnant, but insisted on secretly getting married before having sex, narrates the last day of her life before she is gunned down in the cafeteria by one of three gunmen who burst into the school. The second part is by that girl’s husband/father of her baby, who heroically killed one of the gunmen that day, but was still suspected of being involved. 10 years have passed since the shooting, and he has not gotten over it. His strict, religious father is a bastard. The third part is by the husband’s new girlfriend, narrated after he disappears one day, and she comes into contact with a psychic who says that she has contact with her boyfriend. The fourth part is by that father, who all these years later is wondering if he made mistakes. The first, and about three quarters of the second story, and believable, tense and involving. Then the book goes completely off the rails, going into some sort of surreal crime drama involving Russian gangsters and black outs, and then spirals even further into unbelievable terrain. The third part is useless and stupid – and has nothing to do with the rest of the book really. The fourth part is short, but quite effective. Coupland doesn’t really deal with the shooters themselves – when he does he dismisses them as pathetic losers. What he does get right is the media frenzy. How the girl in the first part gets lionized as a “martyr”, how the shooter who “repented” and then was shot by one of his friends is almost equally lionized, and how the community and the media need someone to blame, and since the shooters are dead, they take it out on the husband. When dealing with the shooting, and its aftermath, Coupland does a great job. When dealing with the religious fanaticism of the father, not to mention the “Youth Alive” group, a Christian group at the school, he’s merciless and dead on. But when Coupland strays from his story, he gets lost and the book meanders into strange, weird subplots. Still a good book, but it could have been a great one. Grade: B-.

The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke
This is without a doubt my least favorite of the titles I read. If you read my post on school shootings in the movies, then you read that I also hated the movie based on this book (the only one of these titles to be turned into a movie so far), so I won’t dwell on the details too much. The book is about two teenage girls who are best friends. One if a born again Christian, one is, for lack of a better term, a slut. They are in the bathroom at school one day, when a boy with a gun comes in. He asks them which of them he should shoot. One says “Shoot her, not me”. The other says “Shoot me, not her”, and the novel then winds back to tell the story of the two girls in the year leading up to the shooting, as well as flashes forward to the life of the woman who survived. My problem with the novel is twofold. For one, it felt exploitive to me. It introduces complex topics – not just a school shooting, but also abortion – but never examines them in any depth. The shooter is hardly even mentioned, his motives don’t matter. The book simply uses the shooting as a jumping off point to its pathetic point. The other is that we figure out the books “secret” well before we are supposed to, and we have to wade through hundreds of pages before the author decides to do the big “reveal”. It’s a boring, pointless, meandering book. Grade: D-

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picolut
Jodi Picolut’s Nineteen Minutes is probably the best of the “bullied” books. What I mean by that, is that many of the books that have been written about school shootings place the blame as much, if not more so, on the bullies who pick on the shooter, as it does on the shooter itself. So while I think that Nineteen Minutes follows the same basic formula of many of those books, it goes much deeper. It doesn’t simply examine the mind of the shooter – although it does that wonderfully – but also his family, and even more interesting the family of one of his former friends, whose boyfriend was killed in the shooting. The novel isn’t just about the days or week leading up to the shooting, but the entire lives of the people in the 17 years leading up to it. The book is amazingly well written, and gripping. I do wish that it had been a little more original – too many of the characters were stereotypes, and although Picolut does a thorough job of fleshing them out, to a certain extent, they stay that way. I’m also not sure if I quite buy the “surprise” ending, although I know what Picolut is going for. It isn’t just the bullied students who can feel out of place and miserable in high school. It can be everyone. Nineteen Minutes is a great novel. Grade: A-

Project X by Jim Shepherd
Out of all the books for young people, or even adults for that matter, that I read for this piece, this is the book that best captures the interplay between two gunmen in a school shooting the best. One is more unhinged, more violent then the other, who is essentially so depressed, he cannot allow himself to see all the good things in his life, just the bad ones. Told from the point of view of the depressed kid, Project X is a novel of gradually mounting suspense and terror, as he hope and pray that Hanratty, the kid at the center, will put the brakes on before it is too late. Shepherd’s book doesn’t look for easy answers, or assign blame to a bunch of factors, but just looks unflinchingly at the main characters life. A wonderful book. Grade: A-

Quad by C.G. Watson
Another book aimed at young people, this one is better written, and much more gripping then most of the others aimed at that group. A group of six students – from six different cliques – are trapped in a storage room as someone starts shooting out in the high school quad. Each of the students knows someone who might be the shooter. The book flashes back and forth – from inside the storage room to the week leading up the shooting – to show how anyone of five students could be the potential shooter. The book really is more about the lives of teenagers, the pressure to fit in and belong then about anything else. Each of the kids – although they vary widely in social status – could potentially have snapped. What I found slightly disturbing was that the shooter was portrayed much more sympathetically than anyone else. This seems to be a recurrent theme in books aimed at teenagers. They are trying to get people to be nicer, but perhaps for some, it will simply justify their rage. Grade: C+

Rage by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
Written more than two decades before Columbine, and essentially pulled for circulation after it, Stephen King’s Rage tells the story of one kid who snaps and decides to bring a gun to school, shooting two teachers, and then holding his class hostage for hours on end. The book is short on violence, and instead looks at the psychology of kids like this. Gradually, the kids in the class start to understand, and even sympathize with the kid with the gun, who tells them there story, and then gets them to tell him theirs. The book is a little simplistic psychology speaking, but doesn’t make excuses, or deflect blame either. It is a scarily accurate portrait. Grade: A-

Shooter by Walter Dean Myers
I quite liked the format of this book, which was different from most novels on the subject. Instead of a narrative focus, wrier Myers tells his stories in a series of interviews with the two people most connected to a school shooter, who has killed himself. The first is Cameron, a smart 17 year old African American kid, who doesn’t fit in anywhere, but develops a strange bond with Len. Len is a darker character, prone to fits of rage and depression, taking more prescription drugs than he should and has a very difficult relationship with his parents. He and Cameron share this, as Cameron’s parents are overachievers who push him too far. The second character is Carla, a girl who has been molested, and as such, takes a little too much abuse from Len. She is caught between Cameron and Len – she likes them both. Only slowly, through the series of interviews conducted with these two, and other files in a police report (including Len’s journal), do we really find out what happened. I liked the style of the book, I liked the writing, and the story was well thought out. And even more rare for a book aimed at teenagers, it didn’t talk down to them, but rather just told the story. Quite a good little novel. Grade: B

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
Vernon God Little is different from all the other books on this list because of one reason – it’s funny. More of a satire on reality TV than an honest examination of school shootings, the book is merciless throughout, and highly enjoy. Vernon Little is the only friend of Jesus, a Mexican kid in a small Texas town who goes on a shooting spree in his high school before turning the gun on himself. The town wants vengeance, and Vernon is the easiest target. Things spirial completely out of control, as small things are blown way out of proportion, and Vernon is arrested, first as an accomplice to murder, then charged with the murders themselves. He flees to Mexico, and when he is caught again, the State has decided to pin an additional 17 murders on him – pretty much every murder in the state of Texas that happened when Vernon was on the run. Through it all, his mother obsesses about getting a new side by side fridge, and wonders why Vernon can’t get a job to help her out (she cannot even pay the hydro bill). The book is about people trying to elevate their status above where it is, and the people’s fascination with reality TV. Vernon finds himself at the center of his own reality show while on death row, where the public gets to vote for who they want to see killed. I would say “only in Texas” if it didn’t seem so scarily plausible. Grade: B+

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Far and away the best novel about a school shooting I have ever read. Told entirely from the point of view of the mother of the shooter, who tells her story in a series of letters to her husband in the aftermath of the shooting. She always hated her son Kevin. From the time he was a baby, he seemed like an evil little brat to her. There was something missing in him that other children had. By contrast, she loved her little girl with all her heart. She saw the warning signs in Kevin, and tried to do something about it, but no one listened – especially not her husband who thought “Boys will be boys”. Then he walks into the school gym with a crossbow and mows down a bunch of students and waits for the cops to show up. What I found fascinating about the novel is how author Shriver gets under the skin of the woman. She is not an entirely sympathetic character, and we are tempted to put a lot of blame on her. But, since she is telling the story, we can never really figure out if what she is telling us is true or embellished. Is she saying all of this simply to protect herself? From what? We Need to Talk About Kevin is compulsively readable, gripping and tragic. It is one of my favorite books, and easily the best book on this list. Grade: A.


  1. Thank you so much for this list, I need a few books to analyze for a senior english assignment, and this list has given me some perfect books to read about school shootings. Thank you!

  2. I'd like to add my novella to the list;
    Broken Buckets by Tamera du Trieux.