Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins), 2017
At 16, Starr Carter lives a double life. Home is Garden Heights; after school, she works in the neighborhood convenience store run by her father (the ex-gangster legend Big Mav); and she still has nightmares about watching her 9-year-old best friend be killed in a drive-by shooting. Because of the gang-related dangers of Garden Heights High, Starr’s mother drives her and her two brothers to a private school 45 minutes away, where they are among the only African American students. One result of her double life is that she is an outsider among Garden Heights kids, a situation made clear in the book’s opening pages, where she has gone to a “spring break” party that’s a local tradition. She knows nobody – but then she suddenly sees Khalil, the best friend of her pre-private school years. She hasn’t seen him for a few years, and she is disturbed by the obvious implications of his diamond earrings and expensive clothes, but as they catch up on each other’s lives, there’s suddenly a shot and a stampede for the door. Khalil shepherds Starr out the door and is driving her home, when they are pulled over by a white policeman.
Starr has been told how to act in such a situation: Do whatever they tell you to do. Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you. And Khalil, though he voices his irritation, complies, getting out of the car with his hands up, putting them on the car’s roof while he is patted down three times. But as the policeman takes Khalil’s registration and insurance back to the squad car, Khalil opens the car door to ask Starr if she’s okay. The policeman shoots him three times. Starr jumps out of the car and tries to stop the bleeding, but as Khalil dies, the policeman trains his gun on her and makes her keep her hands up. Soon it emerges that Khalil was unarmed, and the incident becomes national news. Protests turn Garden Heights into a war zone, complete with tanks, looting, and tear gas. Starr watches in disbelief as TV news makes the policeman into the victim, while branding Khalil as a gang member and a drug dealer. Her white “friends” in school use protest as an excuse to skip class, and slowly she becomes aware of the racism her “school self” has led her to ignore. As the book progresses, she comes to realize not just that she is the only witness to what happened, but she must bear witness, putting aside fear and speaking up against not just one unjust black death, but many.
This is one of the very best books of the year, not only because of its timeliness, but because of the skill and subtlety of its writing. Starr’s voice is wonderful, her concerns with clothes, friends, and her (white) boyfriend are entirely believable. Her family is held together by her smart-mouthed father and tough, loving mother, two determined people torn between their desire to improve their community and their need to protect their children. And hovering behind the whole is the ghost of Tupac Shakur, whose music inspired Angie Thomas to become a rapper herself. Tupac’s determination to call attention to social issues through rap led him to found Thug Life, whose acronym gives the book its title (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody). And references to his book The Rose That Grew in Concrete, appearing symbolically in Big Mav’s garden and quoted directly, reflect the book’s determination to cultivate justice and beauty in unlikely places.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.