by Angie Thomas, 2017
Starr Carter is sixteen years old when she witnesses the police shooting of her friend Khalil. Pulled over for a seemingly routine traffic violation, things quickly go south when Khalil demands to know why he was stopped, is frisked, and returns to the car to ask Starr if she’s okay. There appeared to be a gun in the car, they say of the hairbrush sticking out of a pocket in the door. He was dealing drugs, they say with no evidence of such in the car. One more gangbanger out of the way, they say, while knowing nothing about Khalil and the life he led. It’s a sad day when a book like this is necessary and, yet, here we are, and this book is so very necessary.
One would have to be living under a rock to not know that this story was inspired by the real life police shootings of numerous black American citizens. How easy it has been to cast the victims as “other” and to say that they must have done something to provoke the police. What Thomas’s book does best is to show how mundane an interaction can be for it to have fatal consequences. Thomas very smartly casts one of the central characters – Starr’s Uncle Carlos – as a fellow officer to avoid falling into “all lives” or “blue lives matter” trap so that she can explore this interaction between black and white, oppressed and oppressor, on multiple levels.
The story is not just about one teen’s unjust death, but about how we walk the line between disparate cultures. Starr attends the upscale and mostly white Williamson high school while living in the less affluent Garden Heights with her family. Her mother is a nurse and her father – who is an ex-con, ex-gang member – owns a shop. Her older brother is a result of her father’s infidelity with a prostitute. It’s a family as modern as they get, but Thomas shows that however far they may be from the nuclear, 2.5 kids, white picket fence picture, they live with an abundance of love. That difference, however, becomes readily apparent when Starr compares herself with her classmates. She is understandably fearful of what they would think of her home life and keeps her involvement in the shooting a secret until she can no longer.
The most effective part of this book is its advocacy for using voice as change. Starr is terrified of what might happen to her and her family if she speaks out on the incident, but many encourage her to go forth and use the only weapon she has: her voice. How the case turns out should be a surprise to no one following the news, but all is not lost as Starr and her family see the seeds of change budding in the people they know. It’s not unusual to feel hopeless in the face of such great injustice, but Starr’s story demonstrates how important it is for one voice to speak up and for none of us to remain silent.
While the story behind The Hate U Give is so incredibly important, I found I was less enamored of the writing style. The narrative voice is very young and clearly geared toward a post-Arrested Development/The Office world – I could easily picture Starr stopping to address the camera with commentary on what another character had said. Allowing for the fact that this is a young adult novel, written for those who came of age in such times, I still found the style jarring and not to my taste. It was as if Thomas were trying too hard to identify with the reader instead of focusing on Starr’s story. (The constant references to 90s pop culture also wore thin. I get it – you grew up watching The Fresh Prince.) Granted, I’m clearly older than Thomas’s target audience so I don’t think my personal style preferences should be a deterrent to anyone interested in reading this book. It is a story that needs to be told and, judging by the book’s immediate success, it is one we are all impatiently waiting to hear.