This YA novel has turned into a bestseller and has generated a lot of positive buzz. Angie Thomas, with her first novel, boldly takes on racism and police shootings through the eyes of 16-year-old Starr Carter. Starr is an engaging narrator who straddles two different worlds that will collide, forcing her to make hard choices about who she is and what she ought to be doing.
We meet Starr on the night “it” happens. It’s spring break and Starr is at a house party in her neighborhood, Garden Heights. There she runs into one of her oldest friends Khalil. They’ve known each other since childhood, but since Starr has been attending Williamson, the mostly white private school 45 minutes away, she has fallen out of touch with Khalil and others from Garden Heights. When shots ring out at the party, the pair take off together, with Khalil offering to drive Starr home. On the way, a cop stops their car and during this stop, the cop shoots and kills Khalil. Starr is traumatized, of course. She is an eye witness to the shooting of a friend and not for the first time in her life. But this time, the shooting involves a cop and becomes national news. The people of Garden Heights are furious that an unarmed 16-year-old kid was killed and they want justice for Khalil. Starr does, too, but her identity as the witness has not been revealed and she has reason to be afraid. Not only does she fear what the police might do, but she also has to worry about the gangs of Garden Heights who have an interest in what has happened to Khalil. Starr thinks,
I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.
Meanwhile on the news and at Williamson, the story is presented as Khalil being a drug dealer and gang member; in other words, he had it coming. Starr does not tell her friends at Williamson that she knew Khalil or that she is the witness, but it becomes more and more difficult for her to hold her tongue, especially as she becomes more attuned to the racism of people like her friend Hailey, who mysteriously cooled off her friendship with Starr before the shooting even happened. As the weeks pass, Starr has to manage the stress of police interviews and testifying before a grand jury, but she also is struggling with her guilt over what has happened. She evaluates her own actions over the past few years and feels she has somehow betrayed her neighborhood friends by attending Williamson and making friends there, including a white boyfriend.
While Starr has to repress her “Garden Heights” self at Williamson and her “Williamson” self in Garden Heights, when she is with her family, she can be herself. Starr’s family includes her mother, who is a nurse at the local clinic; her father, a former gang member who went to jail but now owns a neighborhood store; her older half-brother Seven, who attends Williamson and splits time between the Carter household and his mother’s very troubled household; younger brother Sekani; and Uncle Carlos, who is a detective and who lives with his family in Riverton Hills. Riverton Hills is a gated community close to Williamson and is where many of her school friends also live. While her family is supportive of Starr, they also feel the tensions that result from Khalil’s death. As violence grips the neighborhood, Starr’s mother wants to move the family out, while her dad feels that that is a betrayal. Through Starr’s family and their neighbors, the reader learns about the system that feeds into gangs, drug dealing, and rioting. Starr sees that even she has made certain unfair assumptions about Khalil, and she begins to feel more strongly that the only way to make things change is to use your voice. The question is whether it will make a difference and how high a price Starr and the people she loves might have to pay.
The end of the novel is suspenseful, frustrating, and terrifying but not without hope. Starr’s worlds don’t fit together easily, and the fallout from her decision on how she needs to act will take a toll on her and on many people she loves. This is a superb novel for teens and adults to get an idea of what it might be like to witness and be the victim of injustice and violence. Perhaps readers might also engage in a little self-examination when it comes to racism and our response to the increase in police shootings of unarmed people of color. This would be great for a book club or community read.