Tuesday, June 30, 2009

School Shootings: Columbine & 19 Minutes

A Dual Review for Columbine by Dave Cullen and 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Columbine
Synopsis (from Amazon.com)
In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen? Drawing on extensive interviews, police reports and his own reporting, Cullen meticulously pieces together what happened when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves. The media spin was that specific students, namely jocks, were targeted and that Dylan and Eric were members of the Trench Coat Mafia. According to Cullen, they lived apparently normal lives, but under the surface lay an angry, erratic depressive (Klebold) and a sadistic psychopath (Harris), together forming a combustible pair. They planned the massacre for a year, outlining their intentions for massive carnage in extensive journals and video diaries. Cullen expertly balances the psychological analysis—enhanced by several of the nation's leading experts on psychopathology—with an examination of the shooting's effects on survivors, victims' families and the Columbine community. Readers will come away from Cullen's unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill, even if the answers aren't easy to stomach.

The truth is Columbine had every reason to affect me on a personal level. In 1999, I was a senior in high school in a suburb northeast of Pennsylvania with a socio-economic background similar to Columbine High School. Parts of the campus look eerily similar. In fact from the aerial shots of the school, the two biggest differences between my high school and Columbine is the amount of windows (our school had none) and the mountains in Colorado. One of the victims, though completely unrelated to me shared my last name. And like me, she was also a senior, captain of the swim, and taking an identical load of classes. After the shootings, students in my high school, students who were ignorant, insensitivie, and simply immature, wore trench coats to school, called in fake bomb threats from payphones on campus hoping to get a day off from school, and several kids I remember well made an effort to point out every eerie similarity between my life and the life of the girl who died in Colorado.

I read a lot about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when the story broke and tried to keep up with the news reports when they came out while I was in college, and when Dave Cullen's book came out, I immediately put it on my Amazon Wish List. Though I knew I wanted to read it, I was also in no rush. Until I started to hear so many good things about it. So when an agent in my office mentioned how good it was and waved a copy in front of me, I had to borrow it. Now after spending two consecutive nights up too late reading and rereading certain chapters, I have to believe, while it does affect me on a personal level, it should have the same affect on anyone, even those who are too young to really remember Columbine when it happened.

Dave Cullen's writing is easily comparable to Capote's In Cold Blood. He's done a remarkable job sorting through the rumors and mixed reports and the biases which surrounded the shootings to give us a thorough, riveting, and disturbing look into the how's and why's behind the worst school shooting in American history. Beginning with the days right before the shooting and the incident itself, Cullen lays out a timeline of April 20th, 1999 within the first section of the book. Then he cuts back and forth between Eric and Dylan's lives and gives insights into their minds and behavior and the reprecussions of their actions and the results of the investigation, which allows the reader to unravel the investigation as the book goes on.

And remarkably, the brillantly researched prose is exceptionally clear-eyed, compassionate, and without blame. The tragedy simply unfolds, without the author interjecting his own biases and opinions. Just under 400 pages, there is no pretension, no sensationalism, no haunting pictures. And none are needed. Even the cover, stark in its plain design, allows the book to speak for itself. And it works.

The truth is harrowing enough. Cullen's writing sucked me in from the very beginning, and no matter how many times I felt sick, found myself teary eyes and wanting to look away, I couldn't afford to put it down. Through this book, I found myself in an impossible situation: I felt as if I knew these killers, I felt as if I could have been there.

19 Minutes
Synopsis (from Amazon.com)
Best known for tackling controversial issues through richly told fictional accounts, Jodi Picoult's 14th novel, Nineteen Minutes, deals with the truth and consequences of a smalltown high-school shooting. Set in Sterling, New Hampshire, Picoult offers reads a glimpse of what would cause a 17-year-old to wake up one day, load his backpack with four guns, and kill nine students and one teacher in the span of nineteen minutes. As with any Picoult novel, the answers are never black and white, and it is her exceptional ability to blur the lines between right and wrong that make this author such a captivating storyteller.

On Peter Houghton's first day of kindergarten, he watched helplessly as an older boy ripped his lunch box out of his hands and threw it out the window. From that day on, his life was a series of humiliations, from having his pants pulled down in the cafeteria, to being called a freak at every turn. But can endless bullying justify murder? As Picoult attempts to answer this question, she shows us all sides of the equation, from the ruthless jock who loses his ability to speak after being shot in the head, to the mother who both blames and pities herself for producing what most would call a monster. Surrounding Peter's story is that of Josie Cormier, a former friend whose acceptance into the popular crowd hangs on a string that makes it impossible for her to reconcile her beliefs with her actions.

At times, Nineteen Minutes can seem tediously stereotypical-- jocks versus nerds, parent versus child, teacher versus student. Part of Picoult's gift is showing us the subtleties of these common dynamics, and the startling effects they often have on the moral landscape. As Peter's mother says at the end of this spellbinding novel, "Everyone would remember Peter for nineteen minutes of his life, but what about the other nine million?"

After reading, Columbine, I was remind of reading Jodi Picoult's 19 Minutes, which though very different from the actual shootings at Columbine High School, was also a wonderfully-written, riveting account of something which easily could take place at any school anywhere. Like all of her novels, it made me cry and the shocking twist at the end left me gasping.

3 comments:

beth said...

These are both books I very much want to read, although I'm bracing myself a bit for Columbine.

Like you, doing the shootings, I was a senior in high school. But although I wasn't like one of the victims, my brother was like one of the shooters. Before the incident, he wore black (though not trench coats; it's too hot in the south), listened to the same kind of music, had the same attitude and persona. It was a very strange time in my life, one that I still feel very accutely as I am now a teacher. Even today, I think of Columbine while I go to work. Not every day, I'm not obsessed--but when I see kids bullying, I break it up with the unconscious memory of the motivation of the shooters. When kids laugh and make fun of Code Reds at our school (where we practice lock down procedures in the event of a shooter), I shush them and remind them of Columbine--even though my students were just kids when it happened.

suzie said...

Since 19 Minutes was fictional, it was easier to read that first, and she really did a great job portraying the complexity of the characters.

And Columbine, though disturbing, was extremely enlightening on multiple counts. I think it really did accomplish what the author set out - to answer the "why" and also show how the community and the survivors have moved on. It's definitely an incredible read.

Becca Fitzpatrick said...

19 minutes made me cry, too. Especially the last page. I'll have to read Columbine. Great reviews!

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Five Random Things About Suzie

1. I drink so much orange soda, it's probably running through my veins. I've been known to go through a twelve pack of diet sunkist in a day.

2. I'm legitimately nocturnal (or a vampire). I will be so exhausted at two pm that I'm falling asleep standing up - it has happened before, at Six Flags no less - but as soon as the sun goes down I'm wide awake.

3. I have a gorgeous unused $6000 Reem Acra wedding dress hanging in my closet, and it showed up on my doorstep the same day my (now ex) fiance broke up with me. And thank God for that. I wouldn't have wanted to waste that dress on him.

4. Social anxiety plagues me daily. I write a script and practice in front of the mirror when I have to make a phone call, but most people who interact with me have no idea how nervous I am (or perhaps they lie) because I've worked so hard to try to overcome it.

5. I'm actually worried that I will never love my children (when I do have them in the far off future) as much as I love my dogs. I just like animals better than people - they're sweet and innocent and soft and furry - is that so wrong?