Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give has made a lot of lists since it was published last year, so it was already on my to read list when the book club I’m trying out picked it for February. We just met last night to talk about it so I admit those discussion points might have muddied the waters for me.
The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a young African-American woman from a town called Garden Heights attending a private school in a neighboring town. One evening, having left a party early due to some gunshots, she and her childhood friend Khalil are pulled over. As is all to real in this day and age, the police officer shoots and kills Khalil, and Starr is left to deal with the aftermath of the shooting. She is terrified of retaliation if she speaks out, worried her oldest friend may have turned gangbanger/drug dealer, living two different lives, and generally way more stressed than any sixteen-year-old girl should have to be. Thomas’ first novel has earned a lot of accolades for its realism, its addressing of the treatment of African-Americans by our police, and how it feels to grow up worried a misunderstanding will lead to your death at any time.
I liked this book a lot, but I admit I am not totally in love with it. I have complicated feelings, some of which I imagine are rooted in guilt over my white privilege. I’ll start with what worked for me. Starr is an amazing character, as is her family, her friends (with one major exception), and her neighborhood. I qualify her neighborhood as a character in and of itself, but that might be super white-privileged of me to say that. Garden Heights is “the ghetto,” as Starr puts it (though she’d be angry I called it that – only insiders can). The people that live there are interesting, kind, criminal, funny, devoted, scary – everything. I loved reading about the people that live in this neighborhood and have watched Starr grow and view her as extended family. At times it felt a little bit like reading cliches, but for the most part I was drawn in. The central plot line – a white officer kills a young unarmed black teenager – was handled so deftly that it would be easy to mistake Khalil for one of the real victims of police brutality we’ve seen all too often on the news. I hardly have any African-Americans in my circle of friends, which isn’t really intentional but still leaves me in a bubble, so reading things like this is really necessary for me. I don’t think I’m Thomas’ target audience by any means, but putting myself in the shoes of a kid who has to worry they’ll be killed if they encounter the wrong cop is incredibly moving. How fucked up is it that we still have this issue? Or ever did at all really, but that in 2018 we’re still talking about this? I can’t imagine having a child and having to have the kind of discussions Maverick (Starr’s dad) has with her. I will have my own uncomfortable talks with my daughter about gender inequality and making sure she does everything possible to avoid date rape and assault, but though they’d be terrible things to happen to her, she’d still be alive. Mothers of children of color don’t have the luxury I do. It’s shitty and I don’t know what to do about it aside from try to raise my child differently and keep learning myself, what inherent biases I have, etc. This book handles it well and would be a valuable read for anyone.
What didn’t work for me, unfortunately, is like half the middle of the book. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but it’s just a ton of nothing. Starr struggles constantly with her two identities (the one at home and the other she puts on at school and with her white friends and boyfriend), so much of the novel is also about that. I occasionally got a bit bored in some of these chapters – overly detailed descriptions of how a graduation party goes (including who does what dance, eats what food, etc.), or the prom, or playing basketball against some guys in their PE class. Nothing really goes on in the middle of the book, we just get Starr’s day-to-day life. But that may be Thomas’ intention – to let people read what a typical teenager deals with when they’re not white. I don’t know, but it kind of fell flat for me there. Overall though, this is a really well-written first novel, and I am glad I read it.