Angie Thomas’s devastating new novel, The Hate U Give, opens with a scene all too familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention in this country: a young, unarmed black teenager is shot by a police officer during a traffic stop.
The protagonist–and narrator/witness of the shooting–is Starr, the childhood friend of the victim, Khalil. Afraid of what could happen to her if she speaks out about the shooting, she tries to remain anonymous even while seeking justice for Khalil from the very police force that killed him. When it becomes clear that justice is not easily forthcoming, she has to choose between her own safety and speaking up publicly for Khalil.
Starr lives in Garden Heights, a poor and crime-ridden black neighborhood; she attends school at an expensive, mostly white private school. She has a white friend there, Hilary, who seems like she might not be down with Starr’s Tumblr posts about social justice; and she has a white boyfriend, Chris, whom she can’t bring herself to tell about Khalil. So while she wrestles with how to tell Khalil’s story, she’s also wrestling with how much of her own true self to reveal, both to her friends back home who think she’s stuck-up and her friends from private school who think her home is just a ghetto. Luckily, she has the support of a richly imagined and satisfyingly complex set of immediate and extended family members, one of whom is a cop himself.
This is billed as a YA novel, but it has the weight and complexity of a classic coming-of-age. Every kid growing up has to figure out how to be her authentic self in the face of a heartless world. Not every kid, though, witnesses her own best friend getting shot by the people who are supposed to protect them. Starr’s story brings this experience, so tragically common for black youths and so foreign for most white kids, to life by bringing her and her pain to life.
Starr’s thoughts about her own dilemma could just as easily describe the entire book: “This is about Us, with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, feels like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil.” I read somewhere that literature is a way to turn your eye towards certain people, or certain people’s suffering. Even though much important and moving journalism has been produced around the issue of police brutality, this book hit home in a new way because I felt that I had lived through it with Starr, which is the great power of the best fiction.
Starr makes for a vibrant and lovable narrator; she is a compelling mix of bravery and diffidence, love and anger, hope and heartbreak, and she’s terrifically funny and observant. For instance, explaining why she only dances at her private school, she says, “In Garden Heights, I learn how to be dope by watching. At Williamson, I put my learned dopeness on display. I’m not even that dope, but these white kids think I am and that goes a long way in high school politics.” Experiencing the world through her sharp and sensitive perspective is a pleasure even while it makes you cry.