four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
Dave Cullen
user_rating: 
0

A-ColumbineJournalist Dave Cullen covered the Columbine massacre for Salon and Slate; Columbine brings together a decade of research meant to correct the myths surrounding the tragedy.

The Topic: Like the date 9/11, the word Columbine rarely needs to be buttressed by words such as the attacks or the tragedy of. The images of and the reports about the 1999 Colorado high school shootings come too readily to mind, but according to Dave Cullen, nearly everything reporters (including himself) wrote in the early days after the massacre was incorrect. Cullen spent the last ten years working to correct those errors—from his understanding of the teenage gunmen and how they envisioned the attack to the aftermath of the tragedy, including the law enforcement coverup. To expose the true story, Cullen draws upon a wide array of documents and interviews to create a nearly exhaustive history of the school shooting.
Twelve. 432 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 0446546933

Salon.com 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Dave Cullen’s Columbine is a chilling page-turner, a striking accomplishment given that Cullen’s likely readers almost certainly know how the tragic story ends. … I knew Cullen was a dogged reporter and a terrific writer, but even I was blown away by the pacing and story-telling he mastered in Columbine, a disturbing, inspiring work of art." Joan Walsh

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Columbine] contains thousands of important paragraphs that need disseminating so that readers not only understand the specific massacre at Columbine, but also understand larger truths about school attacks, those who plan them and those who react to them. … For any reader who wants to understand the complicated nature of evil, this book is a masterpiece." Steve Weinberg

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Cullen draws together the threads of this tangled narrative in a style that sometimes mimics hard-boiled police detective novels. … Cullen’s humane approach, and especially his side trips into the recovery efforts of survivors, offers welcome perspective on what can be learned from this bleak tale." April Austin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A]reminder of what journalism at its best is all about. … [If]f Cullen’s book offers any overarching lesson, it’s that some stories can only be demystified by taking the long view—especially a story as troublesome and complicated as this." David Ulin

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Even if it accomplishes nothing else—and it accomplishes an astonishing number of things in compelling, articulate prose—Columbine is a powerful mea culpa, and Cullen’s skill at negotiating the story’s many facets leaves you with no choice but to read on with mounting outrage and horror. … Columbine is a valuable historic resource, but it roils the heart, too." Connie Ogle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s to his credit that Cullen … makes the reader care about getting it right. … While Cullen’s storytelling doesn’t approach the novelistic beauty of In Cold Blood (an unfair standard, perhaps, but an unavoidable comparison for a murder story this detailed), he writes well enough, moving things along with agility and grace." Jennifer Senior

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"While the details of the day are indeed gruesome, Cullen neither embellishes nor sensationalizes. … Cullen’s honor and reporting skills propel this book beyond tabloid and into true literature." Kelly McMasters

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Cullen’s Salon coverage had already refuted some of the worst misconceptions about the story by the fall of 1999. … It could take until 2027, when the last sealed depositions about the rampage are released, for a truly definitive Columbine story to appear." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Many reviewers were more concerned with coming to grips with the attack rather than assessing the book, but their concern may be a testament to Cullen’s work. His reporting fundamentally reframes the event: Columbine, he writes, should be thought of as a failed bombing rather than a school shooting. Furthermore, much of the conventional wisdom about how to prevent such attacks—essentially, watch out for pimply outcasts with a grudge—is confounded by an investigation into Harris’s and Klebold’s actual lives. Most critics, with Janet Maslin a notable exception, thought that Cullen’s account helps us to better wring meaning from the tragedy. In sum, Columbine "is an excellent work of media criticism, showing how legends become truths through continual citation" (New York Times Book Review).

Fictional Takes

Nineteen Minutes | Jodi Picoult (2007): While following the drama of his trial, Picoult reveals the daily humiliation that a student shooter in Sterling, New Hampshire, suffered at the hands of local bullies. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2007)

We Need to Talk About Kevin | Lionel Shriver (2003): After 15-year-old Kevin massacres seven schoolmates in upstate New York, his family tries to understand what turned their child into a killer. ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2003)