I read this quite quickly, over just a couple of days, which is testament to its easy reading style (in terms of writing, at least).
I loved the plot-line, which felt very realistic and has been prompted by similar events in America and Angie Thomas has been very vocal about wanting to inspire young people to find their voices and speak out. Starr, the protagonist who witnessed her friend being shot by the police, was really well done – a great mix of guilt, anger, and sadness without feeling like a victim, which I think was a hard line to get right.
As an English teacher, too, I loved Starr’s idiolect and the extremely conscious way she discusses code-switching, living two identites dependingon whether she’s in her home neighbourhood of Garden Heights or her almost all-white school. The conflict there was well-drawn and familiar, but the articulation of it was superb, that mixture of guilt over wanting to ‘escape’ and feeling an almost sense of relief when leaving somewhere that’s traumatic, but home.
The discussions of racism, too, were so frank and challenging throughout. When, for example, Starr’s (white) friend makes a fried-chicken joke, Starr takes it as racism and her friend Hailey protests it’s a response to a comment Starr herself just made about the canteen food. It’s just one such incident and a really interesting one – because in this specific instance it seems Starr might be being over-sensitive, but usually Hailey is making racially-charged jokes or comments (and the book also brings up the question of what exactly is the difference between being racist, making racist comments and racially-charged discussion – is there one at all?) Thomas explores how it feels to be subject to racism, as well as acknowledging that there is black-on-white racism, in reactions to Starr’s relationship with her white boyfriend Chris – but again, with the underlying reminder that this racism is a) not endemic b) doesn’t come aftera long history of oppression c) isn’t harming anyone’s life chances by condemning them to a life of poverty in a self-proclaimed ‘ghetto.’ It’s not right, but it’s not on the same scale of damage. and when Thomas is making these arguments, through Starr’s narrative, she isn’t overblown or melodramatic (although an intense emotional response would certainly be justified). Instead, often through Starr and her father’s frank conversations about race, she discusses the way that black Americans have systematically been kept down economically, politically, and socially. It’s also an honest look at the way that this can go several ways – into crime as a way to keep your head above water, into segregation to find comfort among people ‘like you’, into activism of groups like the Black Panthers (prominent in the novel).
Thomas takes really difficult questions and actually examines them without providing a simplistic answer, for the most part. The conversations about Khalil, the boy who is shot, unarmed, must be extremely familiar. The media’s (false) representation of him as a drug dealer and gang member seems to be enough justification for many of the characters to accept his death. Thomas’s question – which is left hanging, as so many of them are – is why? Why is it ok for a policeman to simply shoot him, without arrest, warrant, trial, provocation? It’s a broader question, I think, about American policing, For the moment, this lens is firmly on black shootings by white police, but there does seem, from media in the UK anyway, to be a tendancy for American suspects to be shot rather than arrested. I really liked the way she poses these questions and doesn’t always feel the need to give a definitive answer; we’re asked to decide for ourselves.