Most of the YA I read tends to fall into either the dystopian future or fantasy bucket, but with all the buzz and positive reviews, I decided to give this one a shot (it also happened to be February so what better time to read this?). Then I put off reviewing it for almost two months because I wasn’t sure how to properly do justice to the novel.
Many of the themes explored in this novel will feel familiar because Angie Thomas has quite a bit going on this novel. Starr, the main character, is a black teenage girl who lives in the poor neighborhood but goes to a private school in the suburbs, mostly attended by rich, privileged white kids. The novel never names the city, though I assumed Chicago because I am from Illinois, but Google also suggested DC as a possibility. The poor student attending a rich school narrative in and of itself could already be enough for a novel since it shows Starr struggling to balance her two selves, and keep her two worlds separate (Girl in Translation about a Chinese immigrant is a good novel that focuses on these ideas). She never invites her classmates home, and the few friends from the neighborhood she still has accuse her of being embarrassed of them and having lost touch with her roots – especially since she is dating a white guy from her school.
The interracial relationship and associated challenges is another topic that could easily be its own story (the movie Something New, the novel The Wedding Date). Does Chris truly like her for who she is, or is he subconsciously using her to explore a fetish since all his celebrity crushes are also black women? Is his interest in black culture cultural appropriation or a true appreciation and interest in things different from himself?
Starr’s parents grew up in her community, but have managed to do decently well for themselves. Her father, a former gang member and felon, owns and runs a local convenience/grocery store and her mother is a nurse. They send all three of their children to private schools to give them a chance at a better future. Starr’s older half-brother feels pulled to stay in the area after graduation to help his younger half-sisters, and his father, Mav, feels the same pull to stay in the community to work to make it better. Starr’s mother, however, is tired of being worried about her children and wants to move. The argument that Starr’s parents have is about what duties and responsibilities they have towards their community: do they owe it themselves to get out for easier lives, or stay and help build a better, stronger neighborhood? If everyone that can do better leaves, it will never improve. What does the individual owe the group vs. themselves or their family?
These topics have been explored in many books, whether they are novels about race, the immigrant experience and fitting into America, or poor children trying to make it on scholarships in prep schools, and Thomas does a great job at adding her input to these themes. However, she adds one more piece to the fire by using a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager as an important plot point, and the event that makes Starr start reevaluating how she has been approaching her two separate lives, and whether she has been hiding too much of herself from her friends at school.
Starr was in the car with her friend Khalil, and witnessed his shooting. She knew, or at least suspected, that he had started dealing drugs but that was not why they were pulled over. That is not why he was shot. And that one detail about him doesn’t erase the person he was and every other thing he had done. She soon sees how the media coverage tries to paint him as a thug. While the rest of the world doesn’t know Starr was the witness, she gives her account to the police, and will be part of any official inquiry. I know after Trayvon Martin was shot, there was some discussion about his friend who was called up as a witness who didn’t fit in with society’s ideas of an ideal witness because of the way she spoke. By using Starr, a black girl educated at a white school who knows how to talk “white,” Thomas creates the perfect witness to make an impact on any decisions a jury could reach about a police shooting. Will it make a difference, though?
Thomas treats her characters with nuisance, sympathy and respect, showing the challenges they face. Starr is not always perfect and wonders after the shooting if she has been trying to abandon her past. Many of the problems in the novel are not easily solved and don’t always have easy answers about what to do, but the one answer that is easy is that Khalil and all the people he represents didn’t deserve to die, and something needs to change.