Angie Thomas’s debut novel about the Black Lives Matter movement rocketed to the top of the NYT Bestseller list when it came out recently. And while I have some quibbles with it, I can certainly see why.
Starr Carter lives in the majority-black poor neighborhood of Garden Heights, in an unnamed city, but she attends a wealthy prep school outside it. Her worlds collide when a childhood friend is wrongfully shot by police as she watches. She will have to face down her trauma, a grand jury, a media quick to vilify her friend, and King, a gang leader who’s trying to claim the victim as one of his own.
Meanwhile, the effects of Starr’s political awakening and traumatic experiences ripple through her life, affecting her relationships with her prep school friends Hailey and Maya, and her white boyfriend, Chris.
Some positives about this book:
-The characterization of Starr’s family, particularly her larger-than-life father, an ex-convict who’s left the gangs behind but finds himself making more compromises than he’d like with King, until the moment King goes too far. Starr’s father is also politically committed and keeps living in Garden Heights, where he owns a small business, because he believes that moving would be selling out his people. Above all, he loves his kids. Over the course of the book, he changes in many respects, but not that one. He’s an example of well-done character development of an adult character in YA fiction. This is one YA where the parents aren’t absent.
-I also loved the plotline involving Starr’s half-brother, whose mom is dating King. Starr’s brother wants to protect his mother from her abusive and murderous boyfriend, but as Starr points out, it’s she who should be protecting him.
-The relationship between Starr and Chris was a great example of a supportive interracial relationship. They had awkward moments, but Chris ultimately is willing to put himself in uncomfortable situations for Starr and Starr is willing to let him into her life. It’s hard-won but beautiful.
-Starr’s relationship with Khalil, the victim of the police shooting, struck a chord with me because despite her love towards him, circumstances have pushed them apart by the time the shooting happens. It’s more complicated than “her best friend got shot” and yet the intensity of feeling is still there.
-Okay, this is a minor thing, but Maya (not me, but Starr’s Taiwanese friend) basically exists to be a Good Minority Friend to Starr and validate her feeling that Hailey is a Bad White Friend. Neither of them is super-developed, but Hailey felt real–Maya is very thinly characterized. As she’s one of the few characters who’s neither white nor black, it felt like a missed opportunity.
-Sometimes the author seems worried the reader won’t get it without her explicitly summarizing what’s going on emotionally and politically in the book. The “telling” outweighed the “showing” at times.
-The plot was a bit episodic, though it comes together really well at the climax, the night the grand jury decision is handed down.
Overall, the excellent characterization and relationships, as well as an exciting climax, outweighed some problems with didacticism and pacing. Plus, the book has an important message, and I’m not going to pretend that didn’t affect my view of it.