Columbine by Dave Cullen


It took me a few weeks to get through Dave Cullen’s Columbine, and another couple weeks to write about it. Not because it is slow, uninteresting or poorly written, but quite the opposite. I would pick it up before bed, meaning to read just a few pages. Before I knew it, 2 hours had flown by and I would have to force myself to put it down so that I would not be too tired at work the next day. After a few nights of this, I had to limit myself to reading the book in the afternoons and on weekends because I also began to have nightmares that a similar attack would happen at graduation for the high school where I work. It is evident that Cullen has spent the past ten years closing studying the events surrounding April 20th, 1999, and he puts the reader right into the middle of it.

Rather than lay out the events in a linear fashion, Cullen moves about in time, replaying part of the attack, rewinding to tell you the backstory on one or more of the people involved, moving forward to relay the after effects for all involved. I appreciated this structure as it allows the reader to get to know the people involved as they enter the stage, rather than give you the full backstory upfront and then have to remember details as events happen. It also allows you to learn a bit about the attack, and then step back and catch your breath, rather than assault you all at once with the full story.

While I have to think that we will never fully know every event that pushed Dylan and Eric to that day, Cullen goes a long way towards getting inside their minds with excerpts from journals, writing assignments, and videos. Some critics have said they think he makes big assumptions about both young men, but I don’t feel like they are big assumptions, based on what he shares with the reader.

Cullen clears many rumors and myths that swirled around that day, such as who told the boys they believed in God, and whether bullying was what pushed the two towards their actions.

There are no pictures included in the book. At first, I was surprised since true crime and biography books tend to include something. I came to appreciate this decision; I imagine this was done out of respect for everyone – to avoid the sensationalism and just lay out the facts. It made me take the book more seriously than I might if I was provided images of the attacks, the victims, and the two young men.

While it is not an easy book to read, I recommend it. 5 stars

I did have one question that I have wondered and never had answered. The majority of the deaths happened in the library. No staff or faculty member is ever mentioned when relaying the events that took place in that room. (Cullen does mention an adult or two hiding in the back, but doesn’t clarify who they were.) I can’t help but wonder where the library staff were during the attack, and why were they not there but there were still students left?



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8 responses to “Columbine by Dave Cullen

  1. Ben

    Carrie, I found this article–

    –and it mentions the librarians’ names. I seem to remember them mentioned in Columbine, but maybe Cullen just called them staff members? I loaned my copy to a friend, so I can’t check. I guess I assumed they were either away eating lunch or hiding in the offices, and that nobody mentioned it because they weren’t exactly heroic. But of course we all know about assumptions…

  2. Thanks, dog-eared. Wonderful review.

    I’m glad you appreciated the structure. It took forever.

    One of the staff in back was Patti (?Neilsen? I can never remember how to spell it), who was a substitute art teacher, and ran in to use the phone to call 911, and got trapped with them. She eventually hid in a cupboard. Others hid in the back.

    There were two main responses by teachers/staff: tell kids to flee, or tell them to take cover. The adults usually did as they advised.

    It’s a good question, and I should have asked, more particularly, what exactly happened with all the library staff. I know some were in the back, but I don’t know if that accounts for all of them.

    I know another teacher, Rick Long, ran in first and told the kids to get out. Then he left to warn others. Many were too scared, and then Patti ran in, with the opposite command.

  3. dogearedandwellread

    Mr. Cullen, thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts, and thank you for the follow up on the library staff. Being a high school librarian, it is something I have wondered, especially since in our library we have had to make plans for what we would do in case of something like this.

    I really did appreciate your book and I recommend it whenever given the chance. I plan to add this to my school’s collection this fall. Every year, we have students who write papers on school violence and I think this would be an excellent resource for those projects in addition to being a great non-fiction read.

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