Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: Columbine, by Dave Cullen

The shootings at Columbine High School happened in late April of 1999, when I was 17. The shooters were high school seniors a month or two away from graduating, just like me. At the time, much was made of the fact that the student body size and makeup, neighborhood setting, and even architectural design of Columbine High School were a lot like our own high school. Of course, my fellow students and I didn't need to seek out similarities with Columbine to be able to feel a profound sense of horror and sadness at the events that took place there. It was just all the more eerie to know that it happened at a school just like ours.

As I'm sure you remember, Columbine was all over the news for a week straight and those first few days of frenzied coverage set the narrative of the tragedy almost in stone. If I asked you to summarize a few things about Columbine, what would you say? Probably something like this: that it was carried out by two poorly parented antisocial loners bent on taking revenge for the bullying they experienced at school. That's why they targeted jocks. They shot a girl because she said she believed in God. They were part of a Goth group called the Trenchcoat Mafia. And nobody detected any hints of the attack before it came.

Read Columbine, by Dave Cullen, and find out why every single one of those details is incorrect. Because while the press created and presented a certain version of the tragedy for public consumption immediately after it happened, it didn't subsequently correct itself when new information came to light in the months and years that followed. That's why so many of these myths about Columbine are still taken as fact.

But what really sets Columbine (the book) apart is that it's not just about the shootings and the accompanying police response and investigation. It's about the killers, too, and I've never read a more caring account of two troubled teenagers than this one. The boys (and their families) are treated with such sensitivity and nuance that they are presented as the individuals they are and never reduced to caricatures.

Columbine is also about the media, and how their coverage got so terribly out of control and threatened to destroy the victims' community.

I think this book is actually more interesting to those of us who remember Columbine and remember it well. Cullen puts together the parts of the story we know - or thought we knew - thoroughly and steadily and then strand by strand unravels it until all is clear. To do this, he uses an interesting chronology that jumps around quite a bit - swinging forward a whole decade at times - but the whole remains coherent and very readable.

When Columbine happened I was wrapped up in my own world and dealing with some difficult things. Columbine made me feel emotion outside of myself for once, yet it also embodied the dark days I was going through. When I think back to that time period, most things are muted and dull, as if viewed through a pane of thick, distorted glass, but Columbine emerges as a moment of horror strong enough to break through that monotony of sadness. As the years passed, however, I seem to have bundled Columbine together with all that was going on in my own life at that time and then put it away.

I really appreciated reading this book and having it all tidied up and cleared away, once and for all.


Liz Johnson said...

Awesome. I can't wait to read this. I'm especially glad to hear that he made the two guys into people instead of just angry criminals.

Alyson P. said...

I read this book about a year ago and really appreciated the way he set facts straight. It was a real eye opener to how the media works. They didn't get a lot of it right but they kept printing the things that got attention. It has made me think twice about what is said about the Tucson shootings.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Even though it shouldn't have mattered, to me the horror was compounded because Columbine High resembled Westview in some key ways.

In cases like Columbine it seems the parents and families of the perpetrators suffer terribly for the rest of their lives.

I want to read this book.

Nancy said...

My mom has slowly been working through your books. She just finished Nothing to Envy and now I'm reading it. :) I think I'd like to read this book, too.

There was a copycat massacre at my cousin's high school in Taber, Alberta shortly after Columbine. It probably never made the news in the States but it was really scary for us all. The perpetrator was a...wait for it...Mormon.

It rocked the whole Mormon community and, well, everybody else, too, of course.

The parents of the only boy who died were really nice—they came to speak at virtually every school in southern AB, including mine. The father was a preacher at a different church and spoke a lot about forgiveness and kindness. Anyway...in short I'd love to read this book. Thanks for sharing.

Nancy said...

Link here.

Dave Cullen said...

Hey Bridget,

Thanks for such a thoughtful and candid review of my book. I like hearing how it affected readers, and entered your life.

I was also pleased to hear you call it caring, sensitive and nuanced. I was definitely aiming for all of those. That made me smile.

For any teacher--or students out there--we’ve had a lot of interest on using the book in school, so we’re trying to make that easier. I spent a good chunk of the fall creating the Columbine Instructor Guide and Columbine Student Guide. They are now online and free. Please consider spreading the word. Thanks.

I hope you're liking the Emirates. I spent two years in Kuwait, and it was tough, but rewarding. I miss it. Sometimes.

JosephJ said...

How's that for author feedback on a review!? Sweet deal, Bridget. Let the record show that you are an accomplished book reviewer, having been acknowledged by several authors now. Keep up the good work!

Myrna said...

Nancy beat me to post here--I was going to talk about the shooting at my old high school (where, many years later, Nancy's cousin also went). What I was thinking was that Canada--at least then--was a bit less tolerant of the paparazzi than Americans were. My sister had a microphone shoved in her face and she said, "Go away. We don't want you here. We don't need you here. Our town needs to heal, and you reporters are not helping. Go away." I think most people responded the same way, and so the story didn't get all blown out of proportion. Sad times--both shootings. And there were others around the same time too. I love your book recommendations, Bridget, and so I am going to read this one, too.

Aimee said...

I live literally two miles from Columbine. Its the school my children will go to if we stay in this house. I am on nearby grounds at the library on a weekly basis. It is eerie thinking. Like you, I remember watching at all the TVs in Westview that day. I remember the horror we all felt. Definitely a defining moment in our generation's history. ("A where were you when..." moment)

Around Christmas there was a craft fair at Columbine. I walked around with my friend Beth, and we talked about how it had been the first time either of us had ever been in the school. The first time I drove by it though, I remember thinking, it doesn't look as much like WHS as I thought it would. The memorial is a beautiful tribute to the victims, most of whom hadn't yet lived life. My SIL and BIL were involved with Young Life at the school and their friend was actually in the cafeteria during the rampage. Its hard to live in this area and not hear stories from people who were there or very close to people who were there.

I have been wanting to read this book since it came out, but haven't yet. My husband used to tell me some of the falsehoods that the media presented, because, they did eventually come to light. However, Dave Cullen went steps further to create the true story. It's good to hear that it does portray everyone involved carefully and as real people. I am now putting this book on hold at the Columbine library. Thanks for a great review!

Joana said...

As usual, great review Bridget. I really feel compelled now to check this book out!

And ,wow, a comment from the author himself. You are a ROCKSTAR!

Tyson and Jen said...

great review Bridget!totally remember all of this! tyson was at columbine when this happened.


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