(Note: this review is based on a listen to the audio book)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a bit…neat. The main character, Starr, just the right side of teenage angsty-and-precocious, her parents as solidly parent-y as you can get, her boyfriend understanding, her brother protective and big-brothery, her little brother just annoying enough to be affectionately little brothery, and the bad guys *spoiler alert* even get their comeuppance so that it all ends, if not they all lived happily ever after, but on a nicely hopeful note. And all of that is a neat trick for a book that takes on police extrajudicial killings of Black people with clarity and humanity, while diving in to the complexities of mixed race communications and family. Not to mention being a teen/young adult coming of age novel told through the voice and experiences of a Black American girl living a lie/life between her Black economically depressed, crime-riddled (but filled with good hard working people like her parents) neighbourhood and the posh world of the white school she attends…and the neighbourhood of her uncle which is sort of her medium space between both worlds, the space where she navigates identities, taking off or putting on masks, depending. The Hate U Give is perhaps most important though in the way it captures the zeitgeist (a moment that’s as much about the Barbeque Bettys, ID Adams, and Permit Pattys as it is about a police culture conditioned when it comes to people of colour to shoot first – e.g. see Tamir Rice, 12, shot dead within seconds of police pulling up on him where he was playing with a toy gun in a park).
(from Beyoncé’s Formation music video)
The Hate U Give does a good job of explaining the Black American experience in this time in a way that can open up conversation beyond that community – because of the smart and in some ways very ordinary and likeable teen girl at its centre, and the mundanity of her circle: her parents bicker and love like any family, she and her boyfriend fight and make up just like any boyfriend and girlfriend (“If this is about the condom stuff, I’ll never buy one again.” “Never?”), and her friendships are tested as friendships are (“Our friendship is based on memories; what do we have now.”). Take race out and there’s no way that you can read this and not relate. But that’s the thing, the book insists that you can’t take race out – reminds you that for characters of colour, it’s not an option.
When the main character and her boy-friend are pulled over on their way home from a party (“get on the ground, hands behind your back”), if you’re a Black reader, you know what’s going to happen even as you hope you’re wrong, and there’s a part of you that is as frustrated with and worried about her boy-friend for not acting right as Starr is because you know he’s going to get himself killed because ‘not acting right’ has different consequences if you’re a black teen boy. Of course, even this instinctive way of thinking about it is wrong as he didn’t get himself killed. He was killed due to someone else’s implicit bias and escalation of a situation that didn’t need to be a situation at all. It’s a moment that challenges you to challenge the way you think about these situations, and maybe think differently.
The main character, Starr, witnessed the first death of a close friend at age 10 – “We were 10, we didn’t know what happened after you died. I still don’t know. She was forced to find out.” But she is not a stereotype or a statistic. She is clearly uber-smart and filled with promise and a bit of a misfit (maybe a bit too perfect?) who as much as she feels things deeply, not least of which is the death of her friend, can be self-involved in the way of your average teen. She is a girl in a blended family (with her older brother, Seven – “Seven and daddy look like those age progression pictures they show” – as the outside child, and his other sister as one of her best friends and also the daughter of one of the story’s main villains…its complicated). I should say that as much as this is Starr’s story, and as much as we need more stories from the Black female perspective, I’m incredibly curious about how Seven sees all of this and his place in the world. He is pulled between three worlds – his dad’s home, his mom’s home (the one with the villain), and the same predominantly white school that his sister/Starr attends. He clearly feels the burden of responsibility that sees him risking his life and his future, and sees him completely falling apart at one point. So, yes, part of what I wanted was Seven’s story in his voice – go figure.
I listened to The Hate U Give (making it my third completed audio book ever…yay, me) and I’ll admit I found the voice acting distracting especially when doing voices and/or asides and/or characters’ inner voice, or just some of the over enunciation when the main character/narrator’s meant to be speaking standard English. But the story itself is a good (and absolutely essential) read as a snapshot of the times in which we live (a time in which voices are pressed by circumstances brought on by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Michael Brown, and others to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter). It’s not a perfect book (what book is?). As I said, some things feel a bit neat to me, some things a bit cliché, sometimes the writing gets in the way of the story; but more often than not it is human and brilliant and well-paced, engaging storytelling. Sometimes your heart will break; other times you’ll legit laugh out loud*, and in perhaps its most brilliant moments, The Hate U Give invites you to inhabit the ordinary beats of the life of a teen girl and her family – see, they’re just people. And how dope is hip hop legend Tupac’s posthumous presence in this book (Tupac everything is always a win but here it doesn’t feel like a plot contrivance which is even better).
*There is a lot of natural humour in this book, like Starr (“the witness”) noticing when her mom hugs her as she’s preparing to go in to the grand jury room that she’s gotten a little taller than her mother – not only adds levity but character consistency as it’s a call back to her issues about her height and her relationship with her mother.
So, overall well done (not that it needs my thumbs up, as not only is it one of the most read and talked about books in recent years, it’s already got it’s own movie, and, yes, I’m interested in seeing it).
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