Perspective is everything. Everything. As readers, and you know – humans, we have soft spots, blind spots really, based on our perspective. We view people and events through the lens of our experience. The longer you know someone, the more likely you are to see the good in them, even if they’ve done something terrible. We’ve all said things we don’t mean but had people take us seriously because of their perspective. We’ve said things that have hurt someone without our knowledge. Or have said things to hurt someone just to make ourselves feel better. When we read a book, we tend to gravitate towards the characters who demonstrate traits we recognize. How any given person interprets a situation is dramatically different depending on where they were before the event happened. That is the entire point behind The Hate List by Jennifer Brown.
In the wake of a school shooting that left many students dead or injured, we follow the story of Val, girlfriend of the shooter. Told in parallel stories of the events leading up to the shooting and after Val returns to school months later, the reader gets to see if trauma has really changed the way people behave. This is a slow, plodding story. It is not full of action and suspense. It will not have you at the edge of your seat. And that’s good. The action so often hides the reality. You can wash over what brought these actions about and how people really change, or don’t, after a catastrophe. On its face, this is the story of a school shooting. But scratch a little deeper and it’s about human nature.
One of the biggest challenges Val faces through the course of the novel is coming to terms with her feelings for Nick and her culpability in the shooting. Many people at school blame her. Several think she participated. A few think she was a saviour. Even her parents hold her responsible. But Val doesn’t know what she is. She did save someone from dying. But she didn’t do it to on purpose. She did it to stop her boyfriend. But her action resulted in getting shot in her leg and Nick killing himself (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s laid out from the get go in the novel). Whether or not he always planned to kill himself is up for debate, but it is possible that he did it because he thought he’d killed Val.The only person he found comfort in. The girl he could be real around.
Bullying is a part of this novel. It is a factor in what lead up to the shooting – there is no denying that, but it’s not what I want to focus on. There are other books that do that. The Hate List doesn’t divide the cast of characters into bullies and bullied. Everyone in this book is broken in some way, even the ones who aren’t supposed to be. Some, like the girl whose face was several deformed in the shooting, can’t even stay in school after Val returns – eventually she attempts suicide. Another takes Val under her wing and tries to become friends with her. Her old friends shut Val out entirely. Val’s parents very obviously blame her. Everyone holds this girl up as a symbol of something. No wonder it’s so hard for her to figure out how she feels.
This book is a prime example of how we assign intention to other people’s actions. Let’s start with the Hate List itself. Val and Nick kept a list of the people or things that pissed them off. They talked about people they wanted to hurt or destroy. They wrote it down. It was excessive and extreme, but that’s what teenagers do! What teenager doesn’t rage about the people they go to school with, their teachers, their parents? They’re still developing the cognitive pathways to deal with things in a rational way. But for these two, their intentions made all the difference. Val saw it as nothing more than ranting and assumed Nick felt the same. But he didn’t. Nick was serious. When he said someone should die, he meant literally. He believed Val felt the same way. So when Val’s ipod is broken and she tells him to do something about it, he does what he thinks she wants and starts shooting. Does this make the shooting Val’s fault? Does not clarifying that she wasn’t serious make her culpable of the deaths of others? Where does the line of responsibility stop?
Val is forced to confront these questions head on when she returns to school. She didn’t know what Nick was going to do, but she talked about it with him. She wonders if she should have made her intentions clearer. Could she have changed things if she’d told him that she was just venting, or would Nick have found another reason to execute his plan. Was he so miserable and suffocated by his own sadness that his path would always have lead to this moment? Do the friendships we develop create our path, or does the path form because of the friends? When Nick first moved to town, he made friends who are now in the popular cliche. The girl he shot in the face (who’s name I cannot remember at the moment) was his friend, but when she was pressured to make a choice, she choose popularity over friendship. She talks to Val about it and wonders if she had chosen differently, would this have happened. But again, this is how we take our own experiences and try to figure out how we would have acted. How we would have changed what happened. We take responsibility for others actions because we think they should act the way our experiences, our perception, would have lead us to act. Even if we hear every detail of what got someone to where they are, we may not come to the same conclusion.
The ability to continue to find the love for someone who has acted outside of our expectations is challenging but crucial to moving on. This is what Val gets stuck on the most. How can she still love Nick after what he did? How can she love herself when everyone blames her? Does she have the right to even think about these things or should she simply accept the names being thrust upon her by others? Has anything actually changed? Some people have changed. But when pushed, many still act the way that is socially acceptable. A popular boy that is clearly interested in Val changes his tune immediately when someone suggests that she’s beneath him. So even after going through a shooting influenced by bullying, the social hierarchy doesn’t change that much. It is still a school full of you fit here, and you fit here, and you hit here, and so on until every student has a place. No matter how the teachers or reporters colour it, the social strata remains constant.
I did not love the end of the book. It felt a little happy-happy trite. However, I do like the Val realized that understanding her personality was so much bigger than breaking her life down to the big moments. That who she is will change as she meets new people and makes new connections. And that no matter what, knowing her own intentions is the most important part of developing into a fully formed person. When we look at other people through our own perception, we cannot know their story. They cannot know ours. Tragedy doesn’t instantly fix things. It takes constant work. It’s never just one thing.