“Parkland” is a tricky book to criticize. It’s about young people trying to change the world for the better. The issue they’re working on — reducing gun violence — is something that no one would argue with. And it’s written in a hopeful, uplifting way. Despite these qualities, however, Dave Cullen has written a book that has something troubling at its core.
The story it tells is of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. Mr. Cullen is the author of a definitive book on school shootings — “Columbine” (2009) — and after the tragedy in Parkland, he decided to document the activism it gave rise to. For nine months, he shadowed the students from the school as they organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, traveled across the country helping other kids organize against gun violence, and worked to make gun safety a resonant issue in the 2018 midterm elections.
The strength of the book is Mr. Cullen’s portrait of these students and his ability to detail their lives, including the rigors of their political schedules and struggles with the psychological aftermath of the shooting. We actually get to meet the people who have become simply names in one of the endless American shouting matches of the past 20 years: Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and many others. Mr. Cullen rightly emphasizes their intelligence, dedication and political moderation — for all of the commotion centered on them, their list of demands is modest and almost boring in its focus on policy issues: background checks and funding research on gun violence, high-capacity magazines and similar items.
It’s an important contemporary story, regardless of where one stands on the issue of gun control. Where Mr. Cullen goes astray is in his tone. The book has a triumphalist aura that raises questions about audience, purpose and effect. It’s written as the story of a movement that reshaped a nation (we are only on page 5 when we learn that “Parkland changed everything”); this despite the fact that less than a year has passed since the shooting and the only evidence of change is higher youth voter turnout in the midterms and a vague promise from Nancy Pelosi to pursue gun reform. At no point is any thought given to similar movements — from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street — and their successes and failures. There is no consideration of the question of whether gun violence might be a symptom of a deeper ill in American society. These blind spots weaken the book and give it a regrettable feeling of wishful thinking about an issue that is far from decided.
By Dave Cullen