Wednesday, 10 May 2017
Some people read to find a point of recognition - to find the comfort of their own reality reflected back at them. There are not enough books in which African-Americans feature as the main characters; this is indisputable, it's unfair and it's a problem. For that reason alone, The Hate U Give is a worthwhile book - and yet it is so much more than just a tick on anyone's diversity checklist. Just as importantly, we read to learn about human experiences unlike our own. We read to broaden our perspective. There is nothing quite like reading for developing empathy, and I cannot imagine reading this book without feeling a great deal of that quality for its gutsy narrator and her truly lovable and admirable family. It's a thoughtful, provocative book for sure, but it's also a wonderfully entertaining one.
Angie Thomas tackles a difficult and important subject matter - racism in contemporary America - and she tackles it head-on. At the beginning of the book, Starr and her friend Khalil are pulled over by a policeman as they are leaving a party. The policeman gives no explanation for stopping them, and Khalil makes the mistake of not being obsequious enough - and of not keeping his hands completely and innocently in the policeman's sight line at all times. The policeman makes assumptions first, shoots second, and starts the rationalisations as his third and next move. Meanwhile, a young man has been killed for pretty much no reason at all - except for the fact that he is black, and therefore assumed to be up to no good. Thomas could be lifting this storyline from the newspapers, and indeed, in some ways she is doing just that. There have been some appalling murders of unarmed black men in the US in recent years, and Thomas makes no bones about the fact that she is responding directly to the tragic statistics that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Racism comes in all shades and nuances, though, and Thomas is just as adept at illuminating the grayer areas as she is at dark tragedy. 16 year old Starr is a particularly balanced narrator because she straddles two worlds: the 'white' world of her private suburban school and the poor, 'black' world of the urban ghetto where she and her parents have been raised.
Thomas shows, both fairly and realistically, the challenges that poor black communities face. In a Vanity Fair article from November 2013, famous rapper Jay-Z talked about being a drug dealer when he was a young man. Not only does he refer to the 'inescapability' of crack cocaine, but also the fact that drug dealing is the most efficient way out of poverty - at least in the short term. "I was thinking about surviving. I was thinking about improving my situation. I was thinking about buying clothes." Thomas does not shy away from the vexed issue that drugs are for communities like the one that Starr grows up in. Drugs, crime, violence and broken families are all just components of the same problem. Thomas does a terrific job - mostly through the character of Starr's father - of making historical and political connections to the why and how of drugs destroying families and communities. (I would also recommend the documentary Thirteenth, currently showing on Netflix, to any curious and concerned reader of this book.)
I found Starr's voice vibrant and compelling; in my opinion, her story is unputdownable. However, I do know several adult readers who could not get past the urban slang and profanity. What struck me as a strong authentic voice - one that will really appeal to teenagers - does not, perhaps cross over so well to an adult reading audience. I would not recommend this to teens under the age of 14, and I will readily acknowledge that more conservative parents will probably have objections even then. I do believe this, though: this is the world, raw and realistic, that many people have to live in. Ultimately, there is also hope in this story - and that is one of the crucial points which makes it a YA novel. Starr does the right, brave thing and her family is behind her all the way - a wonderful source of strength.
Stacy Nyikos has also reviewed The Hate U Give on her blog Out There
Please visit the Barrie Summy blog for more fresh book reviews.