You may be wondering, hey, what does a 30+ year old song about violence due to religious intolerance in Ireland have to do with this book about the police shootings of innocent young black men in modern day America? And I’ll tell you, I’m not quite sure. But I listened to this song a lot while I was reading this book and this opening line really stuck with me.
There’s been a lot of buzz about Angie Thomas’ debut novel, and all of it is deserved. This is a riveting, heartbreakingly sad, earnestly funny, beautifully written book. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading all of it, but that doesn’t matter. I’m glad I read it.
But I find myself (for the second time recently) wondering what I can say about it, as there is little-to-no way I could ever understand what the characters in this book are going through. Yes, I can feel empathy (and I do). Yes, I can get mad (and I did). But I can never truly understand.
This is the story of Starr, a 16 year old girl who lives in a poor urban neighborhood but goes to a fancy, WASP-y private school in the suburbs. One night, she goes to a neighborhood party with her friend Kenya. She feels out of place, not quite sure “which version” of Starr she’s supposed to be — the Starr she is at school, the Starr she is at home, or the Starr who’s known around the neighborhood as simply being Big Mav’s daughter from the shop. She bumps into her childhood best friend, Khalil, and when gunshots break up the party, they leave together.
On the way home, Khalil is pulled over, allegedly for a broken tail light, and then brutally shot to death when reaching into the car for his hairbrush and to ask Starr if she’s ok.
Spoiler alert: Starr is not ok.
Khalil’s death becomes a national news story. He was a drug dealer and a thug, say the powers that be, so he had it coming. But Starr and her family know and love a different Khalil. A fine young man who loved Harry Potter and would do ANYTHING for his friends and family.
Khalil’s death is the tipping point for a neighborhood that was already on the edge. Riots break out. Tanks are sent to control and keep the peace (ha). Gang territory is marked, and if you aren’t with one side, you aren’t protected.
And Starr knows that she needs to step up and tell the world about Khalil and what happened that night, but she’s afraid. She’s afraid for her family, who will be targeted by the King Lords for “snitching.” She’s afraid for the life she’s built herself at school, because there’s simply no way that her rich, white friends will ever understand what she’s going through. But she’s also afraid that if she doesn’t speak up, that she’ll never forgive herself.
“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
I enjoyed getting to know Starr and her family. I loved her parents and the wonderful role models that they were for their children. Maverick (her dad) was honest and open with them about his time in a gang and the time he spent in prison. He worked hard and was respected in the neighborhood, and knew what was best for his family. Their fierce and absolutely unconditional love for their children was beautiful, and their closeness and support for each was something that any family, from any race, or any background, should aspire to.
But as much as I loved parts of it, it was often hard to read this book. Another senseless life lost, another cop who was forgiven — barely any questions asked — for his crime. Too many people ignoring what’s going on around them. This is the state of our union, and I don’t know what to say about it.
This book is over 450 pages, and yet, felt like it simply wasn’t long enough. The blurb on the cover from John Green says, “Angie Thomas has written a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.” He’s right.
4 1/2 stars.