I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person is killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter was riding home from a party with her friend Khalil, and they were pulled over by the police. Moments later, Khalil, who was unarmed and generally cooperative, was dead, his blood all over Starr’s clothes. The lone witness to a shooting, Starr had to make a choice, and it was far more difficult than she expected.
Angie Thomas’s novel has probably been the most-talked-about YA novel of the year—it spend many weeks at the top of the best-seller list, is on heaps of best of lists, was longlisted for the National Book Award, has been optioned for a movie, and was banned by a Texas school district. It is very much a book of the moment. It’s also a good read that tackles complex issues with sensitivity.
The shooting that is central to the story is probably the most straightforward element of them all. The officer was clearly in the wrong, as Khalil did nothing threatening, and the officer had no way of knowing anything about Khalil’s background at that point. All he saw was a young black man whose movements weren’t 100 percent predictable and perfect. The case against the officer is clear, although anyone who follows these stories would know that the system won’t necessarily see things that way.
The book’s real complexity comes with Starr’s reaction—and her life. Starr lives in a rough neighborhood, where shootings are common and drugs are everywhere. Her father is an ex-con who now owns a neighborhood store, and her half-brother’s step-dad is a gang leader. Her parents, hoping to give their children a chance at a better life, have managed to send Starr and her brothers to a private school in the suburbs.
Starr’s family has taught her the power of community and social justice, but when Khalil is shot, speaking up becomes frightening. She doesn’t want her suburban friends to look down on her or on Khalil, whose story has a dark side even Star wasn’t aware of. And sharing her story in the neighborhood could put her in actual danger. Plus, there’s the fact that revisiting the incident means reliving a serious trauma.
The story is told entirely from Starr’s point of view, so we see her wrestle with all of these questions about her response to the tragedy and about her identity. Every now and then, the book gets a touch didactic, but it seems suitable, both because Starr is actively trying to think through some complicated issues and, truthfully, because sometimes readers, whether young or old, need to see the full argument spelled out.
There are moments of genuine suspense, and lots of questions without clear answers. Because it is so very of the moment (particularly in terms of social media and pop culture), I don’t know how much long-term staying power it will have. But even if the cultural references are out of date in five years, the larger issues the book addresses probably won’t be. Unfortunately. And, if it is out of date someday, it’s still an important book right now. I recommend it.