I like to walk around the big chain bookstore, with its carefully crafted display tables and candles and blankets, and not buy books (or anything). Instead I have my library app open and as I see a book that looks interesting I order it up. A few weeks or months later the book arrives at the library and I feel this smug satisfaction of *free books* and the delight of having forgotten I’d ordered it in the first place, so it’s like a double present.
Anyway. One such book was Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. It’s the coming of age story of Starr, a young black woman living in two worlds who witnesses the police shoot and kill her friend Khalil. The wikipedia one sentence summary is that it’s the narrative of her emergence as an activist after witnessing the murder. I guess that’s accurate, but I didn’t feel it was as much an activist story (though it is that) as it was an archetypal bildungsroman. We watch as Starr navigates her sexual maturation, her relationship with her parents and siblings, and her character development (in the sense of morality and ethics, not like… literary character). Her proximity to different neighbourhoods and racial cultures complicates this coming of age as she struggles to articulate who Starr is when she’s at her predominantly white high school versus in her predominantly black neighbourhood, demonstrating the complexity of individual identity formation for those at odds with the dominant narrative of teenage-dom.
The book does this work remarkably well. Starr reads as a full, rich character and experiences subtle, yet significant, character development over the course of the novel. I was a little surprised by her consistent confidence (there’s a scene at the highschool dance that I was particularly baffled by) in social situations, but this may be more a reaction of contrast to my own experience as an overly anxious teenager. Her character development is enhanced by her relationships with the supporting characters of her family and friends – though these characters do not receive the same depth of development and figure more as props to Starr’s experience (which isn’t a complaint, per se, just an observation).
Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris, stands as a translator for white readers (like me), as Starr explains to him nuances of her experience as a young black woman, as well as inviting him/the reader to (re)consider the expectations of an ally (spoiler: do more listening and less assuming). Chris is contrasted with her childhood friend, Haliey, who we embodies the denied and pernicious racism of All Lives Matter. The effect of these relationships is to ask white readers to reflect on their own action and inaction in response to systemic and personal racism.
It’s a book well worth a read, and would likely do particularly well for book club discussion. It does the work that I expect (and admire) of great novels in asking the reader to do more than just read the pages, but consider how we
might must act and think and be differently. Let me know what you think of it.