Four star review, originally posted here on May 19, 2019.
Dave Cullen’s “Columbine” is easily one of the best, most important books I have ever read. And so I could not wait to get my hands on this, his second book, as soon as it came out. It is a very different book in many obvious ways, but Cullen brings his same remarkable skill to this tale. What strikes me the most about both of Cullen’s books is his ability to clearly hear and understand young people, with all their human complexities and abilities, when the rest of the world just seems so deaf and clueless. I could go on for ages about how his careful years-long reporting on Columbine has affected me over the years, but this is a review of Parkland, so I’ll try to focus.
There are three major differences between Columbine and Parkland:
1. Focus. Columbine was very much about a school shooting. It explored the lives of the shooters, the reactions of the community, the perceptions of the world as it watched in horror. Parkland was very much NOT about a school shooting; it was about an extraordinary group of teenagers and the cause they took on after a school shooting touched their lives. And so a read searching for Columbine 2.o in this book will likely be disappointed. It is not a multi-faceted exploration; it is a laser-focused study of one very specific movement, lead by one very small group of people, spanning a relatively short period of history.
2. Chronological proximity. Columbine was released over a decade after the events it documented. This delay gave Cullen, and the world, time to digest the gravity of the event it described, and to heavily reflect on its significance in our modern times and on the long-term effects. Parkland, however, is coming hot off the presses just one year after the shooting that begins our story, and a couple months after the seemingly arbitrarily-selected ending. Of course the main question that is thus ever addressed in this book is: is this tale over? is it only beginning (as the book’s subjects hope)? Has America already cooled on the topics discussed before the pages even hit the bookshelves? Who knows. It is frustrating to read something that is depicted as the start of a movement, only to close the book and never find out within its pages whether anything ever happened with the movement. The history is still being shaped, let alone written. Yet this is one of the greater achievement of Parkland; its close proximity to the events draws us in close, shakes us, and screams at us from the pages “This is happening NOW. You can DO SOMETHING about all of this RIGHT NOW. These kids are still kids, and they’re still bright-eyed and optimistic and begging of YOU to just LISTEN TO THEM.”
3. Personal narrative. Columbine was a masterpiece of investigative journalism. After reading it, Cullen instantly became a personal hero, and I decided to follow him on Facebook, expecting to wind up on his generic author page, likely run by his publicist’s intern or whatever. Instead, I was surprised to find just Dave, a totally normal human being, posting about his life, warts and all. He was open about just how hard he was personally affected by his time working on Columbine, complete with PTSD, tears, and anxiety. This was… not what I had been expecting. But it was nevertheless refreshing. For Parkland, Cullen drops the charade of distance between himself and his subject. He begins the book by openly talking about how scarred he is from reporting on school shootings, about how he and his therapist worked on setting boundaries where the topic was concerned, and how he was reluctant to find himself TV’s leading talking head for mass shootings. All of which makes it absolutely remarkable that he chose to dive back in and write an entire second book. But by telling his personal tale, Cullen highlights just how incredible and different this particular group of kids are, that they would inspire him to shadow them so closely. If Cullen, with both his years of careful specialized research and his close emotional investment, noticed a special spark in these kids, then I’m thinking the rest of us should damn well be paying attention.
It’s too early to tell whether the kids in the book will have a lasting impact, through Cullen does a good job providing plenty of stats (polling data, election results, etc) to show early signs of needle movement. But even if all their efforts end up failing in the long run, there’s an important lesson in Parkland that reminds me of my days as a frustrated teen at the time of Columbine; kids aren’t fucking idiots, and we should fucking listen to them and trust them.
On a more personal and less serious note, I had a lot of deja vu while reading this book, particularly whenever the topic of logistics was discussed, because two years ago I was involved in a major logistical project where we faced skepticism from the community for being “too young” (in our 30’s???) to handle the responsibility. I wish I had had Parkland on hand in the early stages so I could hand my highlighted copy to our skeptics and go “look at the crazy logistics these kids are pulling off on their first try. I think we can handle it.”
tl;dr Read this book if you want to be inspired by some truly amazing people working on truly amazing things, as documented by a truly amazing author.